Port hopefuls preach financial responsibility

The three candidates vying for a seat on the Port of Bremerton’s Board of Commissioners, mindful of the economy and the mood of the voters, spent Tuesday night trying to one-up each other on budgetary matters.

“I’m a fiscal conservative,” declared former Bremerton Mayor Lynn Horton at a forum hosted by the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners at the Silverdale Community Center. “During my term as mayor, every project we worked on came in on time and within its budget. I think we need to secure tenants for the facilities we have before we start worrying about expanding.”

“The port’s first responsibility is to shore up its expenses,” echoed Chico resident Roger Zabinski. “There needs to be a clear source of funding for every project the port takes on, and the public’s tax dollars need to be spent for the public’s good.”

“I see it differently,” countered Bremerton resident Gene Hart. “I think it’s the port’s job to use the public’s dollars to get a fair return on their investment. And we should be using less of those dollars in the first place. The port has the potential to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining rather than using more than half of the property taxes it collects to subsidize operational losses.”

The three candidates seeking to replace Commissioner Cheryl Kincer on the board were also unanimous in their opinion about the future of the port’s controversial Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) project.

Asked point blank whether the proposed green technology business incubator plan should be pursued, each said no — with varying degrees of emphasis.

“I’ve been a supporter of SEED,” said Zabinski. “But that project hasn’t been bringing in the jobs. Until someone can come back with a clear, market-based plan that promises real results, I think SEED should be put on the shelf.”

“In its current form, I wouldn’t support SEED,” Horton agreed. “But I would hope that some elements of the plan could be turned into viable projects. The port has invested a lot of money in SEED and I don’t know if I’d want to drive a stake through its heart completely. But at this point the public has no faith in this plan and it’s time to move on.”

Hart was even more pointed in his criticism of the project.

“SEED is a distraction,” he said. “While we’ve been throwing money down this black hole, the port has been ignoring its primary mission. We have wonderful facilities here and we could be generating more than enough revenue to sustain the operations if we weren’t spending millions of dollars on something that was never going to work.”

Responding to a question from the audience about how many port meetings each had attended in the past year, Hart estimated he’d been present for 11. Zabinski said he’d attended three and Horton conceded she hadn’t personally attended any.

“I’m the only candidate up here who’s a known quantity,” she said. “I’ve served in office before and I’m proud of my record. It’s one thing to be a concerned citizen and want to do your part, but things change the minute you start putting together your own track record.”

All three candidates agreed the port needs to work harder to recruit and maintain potential job-creating businesses.

“For too long we’ve been hanging out a ‘Don’t come here’ sign for businesses,” Horton said. “That needs to change. Rather than saying, ‘We need green businesses,’ we need to roll up our sleeves and go after all kinds of business.”

Zabinski agreed.

“We have to figure out what assets the port has that can be best leveraged to bring in revenue,” he said. “The airport and the business park are tremendous facilities, but rather than concentrating just on green technology companies, what would be so bad if someone wanted to come here and manufacture tires or something like that?”

Hart also said the port needed to do a better job of recruiting and pointed to the recent hiring of a communications consultant as an example of an “unwise choice.”

“If you’re going to spend $40,000 to hire someone,” he said, “it should be someone who brings in $400,000 worth of new revenue. If I’m elected, I pledge to generate more revenue and lower your property taxes. And if property taxes do have to be raised, we won’t do it without a public vote.”

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