Review didn’t endorse port’s SEED project

Berk and Associates, the Seattle-based consultant hired by the Port of Bremerton to evaluate its Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) plan, was studiously noncommittal in the draft report it released last week.

“We cannot say whether the port should or should not go ahead with the plan in absolute terms,” the study concludes, “as we find the plan to be ambitious, not unreasonable, and not without risk.”

Fine. Then we’ll say it for them. SEED is, was and always will be a loser and the port should pull the plug on it before another dime of the taxpayers’ money is wasted.

SEED, envisioned as an incubator for green technology startup companies, has been on hold since February pending completion of Berk’s analysis of its business plan.

A draft of the report was unveiled last Tuesday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the port commissioners had voted to postpone a decision on whether to accept a $2.58 million federal grant for several weeks in order to give the public a chance to read and digest the Berk report.

Given the port’s recent history of voting to obligate taxpayers for millions of dollars in questionable spending with minimal public input — and the outrage that followed those decisions — it’s hardly surprising the commissioners opted to tread lightly this time around.

And make no mistake, this is more than simply a question of whether to cash a federal check. Since the grant requires a one-to-one match from the port, the real question on the table is whether the commissioners will once again vote to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on one of their their pet projects.

Ordinarily, the port would have to ask the voters for a levy lift for such an expenditure, but as Independent columnist Robert Meadows points out, the Port of Bremerton has a group of bonds scheduled to come off the books in 2009.

And by a happy coincidence, the port’s payments on a $3 million bond at 5 percent over 10 years would be roughly what it’s been paying on the old bonds for the past decade.

Which means the commissioners could finagle their way around having to ask the voters for permission to flush another $3 million of our money down the SEED toilet simply by trading the port’s soon-to-be-retired debt for a brand, new one we’ll be paying for another 10 years.

And don’t think they wouldn’t be sorely tempted. Port Commissioner Billl Mahan, perhaps SEED’s biggest cheerleader, hailed the news that the federal grant had been secured as “a great day for the port and for Kitsap County.”

Does that sound like someone who doesn’t plan to take the money and run?

Meanwhile, Commissioner Larry Stokes, who is said to be uncomfortable with the idea of using bonds to fund the SEED project, would presumably vote against it.

The deciding vote would then be cast by Commissioner Cheryl Kincer, who wasn’t present at Tuesday’s meeting but is known to be a big SEED booster.

On the other hand, one assumes she also desires to keep her job. Which brings us back to the Berk report and its assessment of SEED’s business plan.

Had the report been a ringing endorsement of the project, it might have provided enough political cover to allow Kincer to vote for it. But we’ve read the report, and nothing in it could be construed as unbridled enthusiasm for the concept.

The document allows for the possibility that, given enough time and support (read: taxpayer dollars), SEED could be successful. But it also warns that, even then, companies nurtured to profitability with our money could be tempted to flee Kitsap County and relocate to other areas that don’t have the region’s geographical, transportation and other challenges.

Too much money has been wasted on SEED already, and the Berk report — at best — warns that the project will continue to require a huge public subsidy for years to come.

The voters understand this all too well. And the commissioners will ignore their wishes at their own peril.

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