During vote on $4.7 million budget, some citizens in audience question why the agency still needs tax revenue from county
By Elaine Williams
Thursday, June 13, 2013
What Lewiston port commissioners expected to be a formality Wednesday turned into a debate about whether the port should exist as the elected officials passed a $4.7 million budget with $450,000 in county property tax revenue.
The port was founded on a promise that the tax would be temporary, said William Chetwood of Lewiston. "When in the world is the port going to be self-sustaining?"
The port has met that goal because it uses fees from its container dock, land and buildings to pay for its employees and day-to-day functions, port Manager David Doeringsfeld said. "(Property taxes) are used for investment back into the community to create jobs."
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the greatest share of the $450,000, or $171,000, is earmarked for unspecified land acquisition and development. Another $100,000 is set aside for roof repair at the port-owned Best Building, which houses a public ice rink.
So the port could move freight without the $450,000? asked John Bradbury of Lewiston, one of 11 people in the audience.
Yes, the port could, Doeringsfeld replied, but he said he didn't feel it was a fair question since economic development is part of the port's state mandate.
The investment the port makes installing utilities into industrial sites is invaluable to the community's ability to retain existing businesses and recruit new ones, said Doug Mattoon, executive director of Valley Vision.
Usually the companies he works with want "shovel-ready" sites where the only work that needs to be done is to construct a building, Mattoon said.
The private sector typically doesn't do that because it takes such a long time to get a return, Mattoon said. "It has to be available when that company comes knocking on your door."
The $450,000 isn't the only public revenue in the budget, Chetwood said, pointing to a $1.3 million federal grant for an expansion of the port's container dock that starts on July 1. "The new dock is still taxpayer money."
The $2.9 million upgrade is the largest single item in the port's budget.
Cargo moving through the container dock has declined by 50 to 60 percent in the last decade, Doeringsfeld acknowledged in response to questions from Bradbury.
But that trend isn't necessarily indicative of what the future will hold as the economy rebounds and the Port of Portland recruits new ocean-going barges to call, Doeringsfeld said.
Bradbury disagreed. "It's the bar at the mouth of the Columbia that's causing the problem."
The $1.3 million would have been spent somewhere by the federal government on transportation regardless of what the port's plans were, said port President Mary Hasenoehrl.
The project will add 150 feet to the dock, making it possible for two barges to be moored there at the same time, Doeringsfeld said.
It doesn't take a lot of volume to create a traffic jam at the dock where one to three barges arrive each week, Doeringsfeld said. Tugs leave barges at the dock to be loaded with containers, a task that takes a day.
The tugs, however, depart and travel downriver to do other business - sometimes all the way to Portland and back - meaning a single barge can tie up the dock for six days, Doeringsfeld said.
Port backers need to be even more forthcoming with information, Chetwood said.
For example, it would be good to know how much it really costs to send a barge from Lewiston to Portland, Chetwood said. "The cost-benefit ratios have to make sense and they have to be visible."
Port Commissioner Jerry Klemm agreed. "We should be doing a better job of breaking that down so taxpayers know where and how (the money) is being spent."