By Erik Olson, November 27, 2013, Daily News
A divided Port of Longview Commission Tuesday agreed to double property taxes while increasing top administrative salaries by an average of 9 percent.
Despite a citizen’s complaint that the tax hike is “unconscionable,” Commissioners Lou Johnson and Darold Dietz voted for the port’s $34.4 million 2014 budget, which includes the tax hike, 3 percent administrative cuts and harbor maintenance. Commissioner Bob Bagaason voted no.
Under the budget, the port’s top 10 executives will receive a total of $1.1 million in salaries in 2014, up about $87,000 from their total pay this year.
Last year, port commissioners installed a new compensation system based on comparable positions at other ports, which resulted in big pay hikes for 2013. Port officials said salaries for many employees remain below market level, which is why additional pay raises are coming in 2014.
Johnson said port employees have been working at below-market rates for years, and pay increases will help keep Port of Longview pay scales competitive.
All salaries are paid through the operating revenue at the port, not with tax revenue.
Port commissioners decided to direct the tax increase to reduce debt, preserve port assets and invest in new infrastructure.
Dietz and Johnson said the port also needs additional tax revenue to redevelop an abandoned grain terminal, meet state and federal requirements for stormwater system upgrades and conduct other deferred maintenance.
The port will now collect the state maximum of 45 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, up from 23 cents before. For a house worth $150,000, the tax for the port will be $67.50, an increase of $33. The tax hike is expected to generate an additional $1.9 million next year for the port and is not scheduled to expire. It affects all property owners within the port district, which includes Longview, Kelso, Castle Rock, Lexington, Toutle, Silver Lake and Ryderwood.
Port commissioners said they’re not asking for a lot of money from property owners, compared with the potential return of jobs at the port.
“Isn’t now the time to invest in businesses for the community? I don’t want to raise taxes, but that’s a couple pizzas a year for some people,” Commissioner Johnson said.
Nevertheless, Bagaason said he wasn’t certain the tax hike was necessary.
“I don’t feel comfortable with that approach. I do believe in the port, but I believe there’s a different direction we can take to get there,” he said.
The meeting grew tense at times with about a half dozen members of the public attending. Some said they didn’t see a need to raise taxes because the port has enjoyed five consecutive years of record revenue and recently passed the Port of Vancouver as third-largest in the state.
“Doubling the tax rate is unconscionable,” John Green of Longview said.
Others said they recognized the need to raise revenue to ensure the port remains strong.
“I do not want to pay any more taxes, but I want return on my investment. I trust you will be good stewards of my money,” said Jeff Wilson, who owns Longview-based TPI portable toilets.
The budget includes $2.3 million next year to demolish the existing dock at Berth 4. The total redevelopment of an abandoned grain elevator there will cost about $4.7 million over the next five or six years. Also, port officials are planning a $250,000 upgrade of the stormwater system, and they expect they’ll need to spend more to meet state and federal regulations.
“Its a tough situation. We pay taxes like everyone else does, and we don’t take this lightly. It isn’t an easy decision,” Dietz said.
Port CEO Geir Kalhagen said the port has cut overall administrative costs 3 percent this year to help “share the pain,” including delaying some in-house projects and cutting five jobs in operations and maintenance.
The port is expecting to spend $29.9 million in 2014, leaving about $4.5 million left over next year. Combined with existing reserves and other funds, port officials will have about $6.5 million to tackle a list of maintenance projects that port officials say won’t be completed for several years.