Port Needs to Explain Tax Hike

Editorial Staff, December 29, 2013, Daily News

On Dec. 23, the Port of Longview commissioners voted 2-1 to double the port’s property tax levy. TDN reporter Barbara LaBoe reported that commissioners Darold Dietz and Lou Johnson voted in favor of doubling of the tax rate, while Commissioner Bob Bagaason objected.

Sounds like a PUD commissioners’ meeting, doesn’t it?

In light of the ongoing poor economic conditions and five record years of Port of Longview operating revenue, this decision has angered many and raises an obvious question: “What’s changed since 2012?”

Let’s look at the recent history of port taxes. In 2006, the property tax rate was 45 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value, which is the maximum allowed by state law. The rate edged down every year to 39 cents in 2011, when the port commissioners voted to reduce the tax rate by a hefty 45 percent effective for 2012, bringing the rate all the way down to 22 cents per $1,000.

The port’s website explains why the 2012 levy rate had been reduced. (The following is an excerpt taken directly from www.portoflongview.com.)

“Question: What puts the Port in the position to lower taxes?

Answer: For the past several years the Port has seen tremendous growth in operating revenue, creating operating fund reserves that can now support capital projects and equipment purchases previously made with tax collection funds.”

Furthermore, Commissioner Darold Dietz is quoted on the Port website (note to the Port webmaster, you may want to update the site) as saying, “Ultimately, the Commission wants to eliminate the Port property tax collection entirely” and “This is our opportunity to thank the community for its years of support, which has allowed us to build a strong port and work toward financial sustainability.”

So what happened? Why does the port need more taxpayer’s money now? What’s changed since 2012? The year now drawing to an end was another record year for operating revenue at the port, leaving the public wondering why the tax levy should be re-established to its maximum level of 45 cents.

This week, the two commissioners who voted for the tax increase (Dietz and Johnson) cited the need to pay more debt, repair buildings and add utilities. LaBoe also reported Dietz as saying that repairs to existing facilities have been put off for many years and are in critical need. This goes directly against what Dietz himself said when levy rates were reduced for 2012.

The port’s 2014 preliminary budget shows a capital project to demolish berth No. 4 and replace it with a new structure costing up to $4.7 million. The budget also calls for numerous projects and equipment, such as purchasing a new front end loader for $400,000, a sweeper truck for $300,000 and dust control improvements costing $500,000.

Port officials have also said that they expect to need several million dollars in the next few years for stormwater improvements mandated by the state.

While these capital expenditures may be needed, why didn’t the commissioners see them coming when the reduced the tax levy a few years ago? The justification in the port’s budget for the millions needed to demolish and rebuild berth No. 4 is, “The existing structure is well beyond its useful life and poses potential safety concerns.”

Wow. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

This total “about face” by Dietz and Johnson begs for more explanation. We urge the two port commissioners to explain to the public what changed and why they did not plan for it. We’d also like to know their tentative plans for the next five years in terms of the levy rate.

The port is a huge asset to the community, but clearly the way the current commissioners are conducting business it doesn’t give us much confidence it will stay that way.

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