Does Port of Olympia Deserve Our Tax Dollars?

By Michael Wagar, April 5, 2013, Nisqually Valley News

A few weeks ago, still a rookie publisher/editor at the Nisqually Valley News, I was approached by the Port of Olympia.

Executive Director Ed Galligan wanted to meet for coffee or lunch to inform me of the port’s activities.

One of the great aspects of being a community newsman is meeting all the people. I believe being the publisher/editor of a community newspaper when it has strong, ethical ownership and management (which this paper has in spades), is the best job around. I get paid to talk to the most interesting and interested people — not a bad gig.

That said, my work time is precious and I try not to waste it. I didn’t see the value to readers of the NVN in visiting with the port official about their shipping terminal and airport in Olympia.

I told Galligan’s communications and government relations manager the NVN focuses on the local report, and I didn’t want to waste any of our time.

She set me straight. The Port of Olympia, with annual revenues of about $30 million, makes most of its money from shipping and through fees collected at the Olympia Airport, but it is of local interest, she told me.

The port’s mission is to “create economic opportunities by connecting Thurston County to the world by air, land and sea.”

To do so, the port takes some property tax from everyone in Thurston County. That was news to me. Anytime an entity is taking your money, it also will be news for the NVN. In addition, the port is active in smaller, local projects that help budge the local economy along.

So I agreed to meet with Galligan, and the time was certainly well spent.

Galligan said me of his $30 million budget, $4.5 million comes from property taxes. You pay 15 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, or $30 annually for a $200,000 home.

Do we get our money’s worth in Yelm and the rest of southeast Thurston County?

Being a newcomer to the area, I turned to Yelm Mayor Ron Harding, who said although South Thurston County has about 45 percent of the population, the three big cities — Olympia, Tumwater and Lacey — get a large share of programs and services due to its concentrated populations.

Harding said several years ago rural towns, including Yelm, started a conversation with the port with the goal of getting the port to look beyond its shipping and airport activities.

Today, Harding said the port looks at all of Thurston County. He pointed to two specific areas: expanding a foreign trade zone designation to all of Thurston County; and creating a small cities grant program.

The foreign trade zone designation allows for companies to defer, reduce or eliminate customs duties on products shipped into the zone. It adds to a company’s bottom line, which expands the tax base and increases jobs. In addition to the designation, the port worked through the U.S. Department of Commerce to expedite approval to only 30 days for businesses that qualify for foreign trade zone designation.

Galligan, for example, said the port would like to purchase an existing 80-acre property near Yelm, build the infrastructure needed, get it approved as a foreign trade zone, and then bring in businesses, giving a jolt to the local economy.

The small cities grant program offers matching funds of up to $10,000 per year. In 2012, the port awarded the money to Yelm, Rainier and Bucoda. Next year Galligan said he expects to add Tenino to the list.

In Rainier, the money will help with the costs of preparing and obtaining approval of a wastewater facility plan. Rainier leveraged the port dollars into $35,000 matching grants from other sources. This is the first step in getting a sewer system in place for Rainier. That would lead to commercial growth, which could include a large grocery store, restaurants, medical facilities and the like.

In Yelm, the $10,000 will help pay for the design of right-of-way fees needed to improve Mosman Avenue. The port money helped attract other grants and funding of $1.3 million.

Like most, I believe too much of our paycheck goes to taxes. In the case of the Port of Olympia, however, I think it is money well spent.

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