The arguments were not new, but the sense of urgency was more intense.
Numbers discussed at Key West's budget workshop meetings earlier this week showed a drop in the city's projected revenue from cruise ship passenger counts, fueling a renewed effort to explore widening the island's ship channel.
How relevant the passenger projections are to the city's future, or how that should affect future dealings with the industry, is still a matter of contention between members of the business community and among city commissioners.
Projections based on scheduled port calls for cruise ships show the total passenger count decreasing from 837,493 this year to 711,791 through the beginning of next year, a drop of about 16 percent. That translates into an expected drop in city income of $418,000.
During discussions with Port Director Jim Fitton and Assistant City Manager Mark Finigan, commissioners asked sometimes pointed questions. One commissioner, Mark Rossi, said he had a clear answer. From his perspective, the loss represents half the shortfall the city is seeking to plug with a potential tax hike and increase in parking rates. And it presents a message to him that the city must find a better way to accommodate the ships. And the first step toward that is looking into whether the Key West channel can be widened to accommodate bigger ships.
But there are no indications that Rossi's fellows are any more persuaded toward that course of action than when they voted down attempts to get that done last year. But Rossi is pushing hard.
"What happens when 100,000 passengers disappear?" he asked. "You can't replace 100,000 people. How are you going to do it?"
The projections are not engraved in stone. As he answered questions for commissioners, Fitton noted that changes in weather and other issues can result in ships bound for other ports redirecting and ending up at Key West. But for now, he acknowledged, the schedule is what it is.
The financial measures presented to commissioners dealt strictly with disembarkation fees, the money the ship operators pay the city, based on their head counts, every time a ship berths at one of the city's three cruise ship docks.
That money goes into the city's general fund, ostensibly to pay for police and fire protection and wear and tear on roads. There is no statute that specifically regulates how that money is used, according to Rossi. Directly or indirectly, through the general fund, it ends up being part of the package that pays for many different kinds of city services.
Commissioners discussed various causes for the projected drop in passengers. Fewer ships arriving in Key West, rather than fewer passengers taking cruises, emerged as the likely scenario. Rossi maintains emphatically that the math is simple. More ships mean more passengers, he said, and that means more fees and more money spent ashore.
The industry appears to be doing well. Based on third-quarter 2011 results and fourth-quarter estimates, the industry forecasts record passenger counts.
The annual occupancy for ships exceeded 103 percent in 2011, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association's annual report. That same report estimates average spending at a Caribbean port-of-call at $97.26, with average spending by crew members estimated to be $89.24.
That, according to Rossi and other cruise ship proponents, is a reflection of the hidden benefits of the cruise industry on the local economy.
Bolstered by the bad projections for the city, Rossi and other cruise proponents plan to once again market their push for a study. An informational meeting sponsored by the Key West Chamber of Commerce is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Westin Hotel. The public is invited.
Chamber Executive Vice President Virginia Panico agrees with Rossi that the changes in numbers at the ports are a harbinger of the future.
"Indirectly, it affects everybody in the community -- the sales tax alone," Panico said.
Some commissioners found Rossi's use of the budget hearing as a bully pulpit for the cruise issue disconcerting. One suggested that Rossi's connecting of dots between the projected passenger drop and the city's potential need to tax more was "inappropriate."
Commissioner Tony Yaniz said that while the numbers presented no doubt showed a drop, he didn't necessarily see it as that serious an issue.
"It is 5 percent of our total income," he said, expressing concern over how heavy cruise passenger numbers can make Key West less appealing to tourists who fly or drive here. "I am in the vacation business; I talk to people. I have to believe there are people who have taken Key West off of their plate because of the cruise ship fiasco. Three cruise ships in town makes for four, five, maybe 6,000 people, all in a concentrated area."
If Key West's channel cannot handle cruise ships of the future, Yaniz said, then it means there is time to amend strategies.
"If I am selling tomatoes, and you tell me in eight or 10 years nobody is going to eat tomatoes, that gives me that much more time to learn to grow potatoes," Yaniz said. "I'm not going to spend my time figuring how I can grow more tomatoes."
Cruise proponents say all they seek for now is the city's blessing for the channel-widening study. Rossi said he has enough of a commitment for its multimillion-dollar cost from private industry so that the city would not have to spend a cent.
But because the study would be done by the Corps of Engineers, he said, the city would actually have to make the request.
Yaniz said that was an exercise in futility, although, with proof of such assurances, he said he could support the request.
"Does anybody really believe the Army Corps of Engineers is going to say you guys can rip out a half-million tons of bottom and dump it into another part of the ocean?" Yaniz said. "And if they did, who is going to pay to dredge the channel? So if the cruise ships are threatening we will have no cruise ships 10 years from now, I would say we might have more tourists precisely because there are no cruise ships. It is a crack addiction. If we do what they want, what will be the expense to our reef, to our fishing industry? I would want a long-term environmental and economic impact study."