Port of Tacoma Commission Chief Opposes Salary Boost

By Steve Wilhelm, March 13, 2013, Puget Sound Business Journal

Seattle Port Commissioners’ decision to give their successors a raise isn’t sitting well at the rival Port of Tacoma.

Speaking the day after the Seattle decision, Port of Tacoma Commission President Don Meyers said there has been no push at his port for raises — nor should there be.

“It just doesn’t work. If we’re asking the citizens of the state to dig deep in their pockets, this is not the time when we should be increasing compensation dramatically,” Meyers said, referring to requests for transportation funding from the Legislature. “I think the timing is terrible.”

Port of Seattle commissioners voted Tuesday to raise their pay to $42,000 a year, up from a stipend of $6,000, to make Seattle’s the highest-salaried port commission on the West Coast. Pay will increase to the new level as each position is filled in new elections.

Port of Tacoma commissioners receive the $6,000 stipend. There, Meyers estimated that the average commissioner spends 12 to 16 hours a week in that role, which climbs to about 20 hours when they rotate in to become commission president. He added that while the workload is heavy, it’s doable, even for people who work full time

“We do have one commissioner who is a working longshoreman, he works at night,” Meyers said. “When I look back at the races that have been contested, they’ve been contested by a variety of individuals, some of whom were retired individuals, and some whom held jobs. It’s not going to be if you increase their salary you get a better quality of candidate. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that at all.”

Port of Seattle Commission President Tom Albro, who pushed the $36,000 salary increase, to $42,000, the same level state legislators receive, said in response that he thinks serving at the Port of Seattle is categorically harder.

In addition to its seaport, which is comparable to Tacoma’s, the Port of Seattle also operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Fishermen’s Terminal, and cruise ship terminals.

Albro estimated that Seattle port commissioners spend more than 20 hours a week on the job, adding that the fact that King County is the financial hub of the state, and includes a variety of trade organizations and other groups, means that the demands on a commissioners’ time is constant.

“When you look at it, King County represents 40 percent of the state’s economy, King County alone, and we’re smack in the middle of that. The lift is more complicated,” Albro said. “We need to make sure the average person in King County can reasonably serve as port commissioner. The demands of being a port commissioner don’t fit into most people’s lives.”

The debate is based on one key fact, which is that Washington ports, which function as independent taxing districts usually closely aligned with county boundaries, are nearly unique in North America.

Most competing ports, including others on the West Coast, are operated by cities or states. In terms of Puget Sound ports’ key competition, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are operated by those cities respectively, while the Port Metro Vancouver, B.C., is operated by the Canadian government.

This suggests that boards or commissions of those ports may have a narrower range of duties, if they’re not directly fiscally responsible.

Albro, who runs his own business, has promised to not take the pay raise if he is elected to another term.

The pay increase passed the Seattle Port Commission with a 3-0 vote, although Commissioner Bill Bryant, who was not present on March 12, voted against the measure during an earlier vote. The five-member commission also has one vacancy.

In addition to the $6,000 stipend, port commissioners also receive the same health coverage as do port employees, as well as a per diem payment of $104 for meetings, all of which can add up to an annual cost to the port of up to $40,384 per commissioner.

“Compensation right now is adequate,” said Meyers, a former deputy director of the port, adding that he hasn’t heard any talk of a raise among other Tacoma commissioners.

“We’re in an extremely competitive environment,” he said. “A concern I have is keeping focused on the book of business we have here at the port. We haven’t taken this topic up, and I hope we don’t.”

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