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No argument here: Port should bring jobs

 

What really separates the two candidates for Port of Bremerton commissioner?

Axel Strakeljahn says he’s “frustrated” with media accounts portraying him and Shawn Cucciardi as practically interchangeable candidates.

It’s true they both tout their backgrounds as businessmen who have a lot of employees on their payrolls.

Strakeljahn is general manager of the Fred Meyer store, one of the largest retailers in South Kitsap; while Cucciardi is part-owner and manager of the McCormick Woods golf course and restaurant.

As for the mission of the port district, they agree it’s to promote economic development that will bring jobs to the region. And both men talk about using a targeted marketing approach to attract new businesses to the port’s facilities.

However, those similarities in their views only go so far.

When the topic of taxes comes up, their stances diverge — but only after hitting the same notes in criticizing the much-maligned “stealth tax” the port district passed in 2006 to pay for a new marina in Bremerton that’s never had enough tenants to break even.

Their shared criticism is of the way that property tax increase was approved, not of the facility that it produced. The tax rate went up by 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for property owners in the port district.

The bond for the marina will be paid off at the end of 2012, and after that, Strakeljahn vows there will be no more tax increases on his watch as one of the three port commissioners. Cucciardi, on the other hand, doesn’t say no way, though he makes clear that if there’s a worthwhile port project that would require a property tax increase to pay for it, he would only vote for such an increase if the public was clearly in favor.

Cucciardi says the fallout from the “betrayal” the public felt over how the tax increase for the marina was passed has made it harder in subsequent years to pass other tax levies, such as for schools and fire/EMS operations. But he’s not staking out a strict “no new taxes” position like his opponent.

“It’s not that our people are against all tax measures; they understand the need for taxes” to provide public services, Cucciardi maintains. “I just think people as a whole have become disenfranchised with public leaders.”

Strakeljahn sees it differently, emphasizing that it’s essential to hold the line on taxes in an economy still struggling to recover from recession, with high unemployment and so many people struggling to make ends meet.

“I don’t think increasing the tax pressure on the community is the right thing to do,” he says. Instead, he says the port’s leaders should focus on “providing jobs that increase the tax base ... not increase taxes.”

They both promise an expanded push to recruit businesses from outside the area that will bring new jobs to the port’s facilities, whether it’s in available space at Bremerton National Airport or South Kitsap Industrial Area.

Cucciardi also mentions that keeping major tenants such as Safe Boats will be a priority, noting that the manufacturer’s lease with the port expires in 2012. Safe Boats employs about 300 people, and Cucciardi says if the company is successful in its bids for some big new orders, “it could lead to expansion of their facility.”

Strakeljahn said another issue is the SATO (?) building at SKIA, which “sat empty for two years, with no tenant,” and still has only half the available space rented.

“We need to go outside the area” with the port’s marketing efforts, he said, “that’s where business growth is going to come from.”

Both candidates agree on that, but on the subject of their own business experience, each claims an edge.

Strakeljahn, who was formerly the manager of the Pay’n’Pak stores in Bremerton, says he has “a proven track record.”

“I’ve operated businesses in this county for over 30 years; and I haven’t just operated one business, I’ve operated several,” he says.

Cucciardi, who organized the group of investors who bought McCormick Woods in 2003, and who also owns a local transportation logistics company called West Coast Carrier, says he has “more than just management experience” in his endeavors. “I’ve started a business, and raised capital for a business,” he says.

There’s one other aspect of the campaign that Strakeljahn has tried to make an issue, and that’s the endorsements Cucciardi has collected from elected officials and civic leaders. He’s also received the endorsement of the Kitsap County Democratic Party, and Strakeljahn says that puts Cucciardi in the position of “taking sides” in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race.

“I haven’t taken the Democratic side, and I haven’t taken the Republican side,” Strakeljahn says. “I truly believe this position needs to represent the entire community.”

He says he’s “running totally as a nonpartisan,” and his only public endorsement is from current port district Commissioner Larry Stokes.

Cucciardi brushes off any suggestion that he’s running a partisan campaign, and says he has more support from business people than politicians. It’s important to him to have the backing of people who are “very active community leaders.”

 

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