Another port, another ill-advised tax hike

The commissioners of the Port of Manchester may need to repair their relations with the voters and taxpayers of the port district, if they go ahead with an additional property tax to fund expansion plans.

At their meeting on Aug. 10, the commissioners considered creating an “industrial development district,” since they believe it is a prerequisite to imposing an additional property tax levy of up to 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Apparently, they have put aside any intent to propose a levy “lid lift” and let the voters decide whether to increase the port district tax revenue.

Among the comments from the residents who attended the public meeting was a suggestion to put the matter on the ballot for the Nov. 3 election as an advisory vote which would not be binding on the commissioners.

It’s too late to put the issue to the voters, whether as a lid lift or an advisory vote. State law requires notice to the county auditor at least 84 days before the election.

Since February, if not earlier, the port commissioners have been considering their options to obtain additional tax revenue.

The first newspaper report of the possibility of a lid lift or additional levy was in early March.

Needing to pay the debt for a parking lot expansion project that is mostly funded by a state grant, and wanting to purchase more land for future projects, the commissioners knew they had to raise their property tax revenue somehow.

They have two options.

One is to ask the voters to approve an increase in their continuing yearly levy, which is now about $95,399 and is collected this year at a rate of about 14.5 cents per $1,000.

A lid lift could be permanent or temporary. If temporary, it could last for up to 6 years.

And since the maximum allowable tax rate for the ongoing levy is 45 cents per $1,000, a lid lift could authorize the extra 20 to 25 cents per $1,000 that the commissioners estimate to be needed.

The other option is to impose an additional levy of up to 45 cents per $1,000 for 6 years under RCW 53.36.100.

If the commissioners have adopted a “comprehensive scheme of harbor improvements and industrial developments” as required by that statute, they can impose this additional tax without an opportunity for voter approval or rejection.

Only if this additional tax is to be collected for more than the first 6-year period (as the Port of Bremerton is now doing) do the voters get an opportunity to gather signatures on a petition to force it onto the ballot.

So, one option requires voter approval and the other does not.

Having thought about it for months, the commissioners apparently decided to go with the option that doesn’t require voter approval.

And, if they really need the additional revenue beginning in 2010, they’ve waited until it’s too late to put the question to the voters even if residents attending their meetings could persuade them to do so.

Unless the port district can wait until 2011 to begin collecting higher property taxes from its residents, no amount of public input can sway the commissioners to let the voters decide.

Any election at which the voters could decide the matter would occur in 2010, so the additional revenue couldn’t be collected until 2011.

Knowing that the neighboring Port of Bremerton caused hard feelings that may last for years by slipping past the voters’ right to petition and imposing the additional tax, the Manchester Port District commissioners said they wanted to avoid any such problems.

Aside from the impact on community relations, once the voters turn against them, any future need for a voter-approved lid lift would face an uphill struggle to gain approval.

Having waited this long to bring the matter up for decision, it doesn’t seem likely that the commissioners can avoid damaging relations with the community if they go ahead with an increase for taxes due in 2010.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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