We’ll have to see if Huntington takes the heat

Trying to understand the enigmatic behavior of our Port of Bremerton commissioners is similar to attempting to solve a riddle or mystery.

Even now, after port district taxpayers have learned of the 150 percent increase in the port’s property tax, the decision to send us the bill without explanation remains a mystery.

Figuring out why is important, since one of the port commissioners, Mary Ann Huntington, seeks re-election – and this time she faces two other candidates vying for the position.

We have been told more than once in the past few months that the port commissioners had the power under Washington law to levy the higher property tax without voter approval.

If that were a complete statement of the law, it would simply deepen the mystery. Why not tell us what was planned, if the voters could do nothing to stop the tax increase other than make statements at port commission meetings?

Did Huntington and the other two commissioners merely want to avoid having to listen to discouraging words?

The decision to avoid telling residents of the port district certainly was not driven by time constraints. As Huntington has said, this idea has been kicked around by the port district commissioners for years.

Indeed, the first indication that Huntington and the others had embarked on a path toward raising the port’s property tax levy to two and a half times what it had been occurred at their meeting on Nov. 8, 2005.

They created an “industrial development district” on the Bremerton waterfront.

Then, at their Jan. 10, 2006, meeting, Huntington and the other two commissioners voted to direct the staff to publish a legal notice stating their intention to levy higher taxes.

The legal notice of intent to levy a tax increase in 2007 through 2012, starting at a rate of 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, was published in the Kitsap Sun on Jan. 12, 2006.

That legal notice supplied the starting point for a period of time within which taxpayers residing in the district could have forced the port commissioners to put the new property tax on the ballot for the voters to decide whether it would be levied.

If, within 90 days after publication of the legal notice, a petition had been submitted to the county auditor containing a sufficient number of signatures, then the port commissioners could not have levied the higher property tax without approval by a majority of voters.

Is it any wonder, then, that the commissioners chose not to issue any press releases or otherwise alert the public about their plans?

No doubt there were people with a special interest in the ongoing efforts to revitalize Bremerton’s downtown who knew of the port’s intended tax increase, but apparently they also had no desire to put it on the ballot.

Unless someone living in the port district read that notice, recognized its significance and began a petition drive, the port commissioners could go ahead with their planned tax increase without obtaining voter approval.

A petition signed by a number of registered voters residing within the port district equal to 8 percent of the number casting ballots in the 2004 gubernatorial election would have changed everything. It would have taken about 4,500 signatures to send the tax increase to the ballot at the 2006 primary election.

Not only would Huntington and the other commissioners have been required to tell us what they wanted to do, they would have had to persuade us that the intended purposes for the higher tax revenue were worth our paying for them.

The port commissioners were apparently so apprehensive about the possibility of needing voter approval that they also decided at the Jan. 10, 2006, meeting to eliminate the recommended covered moorage facilities from the planned Bremerton marina project.

They issued $17.7 million in bonds later in 2006 to provide funding for the project, putting the port near the limit of debt the commissioners could incur and levy additional taxes to repay without voter approval.

To go further into debt by including covered moorage facilities would have required a ballot measure.

So, taxpayers living within the port district were surprised when their tax bills arrived in Feb. 2007.

The port’s 150 percent increase in its levy added an average of almost 5 percent to the total bill.

The port will collect more than $26 million from the new levy along with some unstated higher levy in the future to repay some part of the $17.7 million long-term debt. The $26 million reportedly will “help” pay part of that bond debt.

Huntington was unopposed in her bid for re-election in 2001, but this year two opponents have filed for the office.

Now, we wait to see what number of voters associate the name Mary Ann Huntington with a desire to re-elect her under the circumstances.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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