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Port defends plan to hike taxes

FREELAND — Port of South Whidbey commissioners will face the public tonight for the first time since announcing the largest tax increase in port history.

Last week, the commissioners authorized port staff to draw up a ballot measure that would permanently triple the port’s property tax levy to pay for improvements at the Langley Marina.

The tax hike is expected to land on the Aug. 19 ballot.

Tonight, the commissioners may find out what those who could be footing the bill think of the plan.

In the days since the tax increase was discussed, commissioners have been eager to point out the low levy rate that’s currently in place. And they have also stressed that if the public wants the port to do its job — which revolves around economic development — it should expect to help prime the pump with higher taxes.

Commissioners hope to raise tax revenues to rebuild the Langley Marina, a $20 million project they say will mean an annual economic boost of $3.2 million.

“Undertaking such projects is clearly stated in the port’s comprehensive plan and would bring us into line with levy rates assessed by similar-sized ports around the state,” said Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert.

Commissioners have always been quick to point out that of the 11 districts rated as “Class C” ports, South Whidbey has one of the lowest tax levies.

That, however, is only part of the revenue picture.

Because of the value of property on Whidbey, South Whidbey’s current levy brings in more tax revenues than nine of 11 Class C ports.

Only two ports in its class currently collect more property tax dollars than the Port of South Whidbey, according to a report by the Washington Public Ports Association.

Also, several port districts that are in classes above South Whidbey — Friday Harbor, Edmonds and Sunnyside — collect fewer property tax dollars than the Port of South Whidbey. And several other port districts of Whidbey’s size or greater do not have a property tax levy.

In 2008, the Port of South Whidbey will receive $451,000 from taxpayers, according to the Island County treasurer.

Port commissioners have said $20 million is needed to build a 110-slip marina in Langley after the port assumes control of the city-owned property in January 2009.

The short time frame before voters go the polls in August gives the port only three months to convince voters their plan is sound.

“Why wait? We need to know how the marina will be funded,” Tapert said. “This gives people the chance to vote on our vision.”

Tapert has already set up meetings with island civic groups to promote the levy increase. “The other commissioners will be doing it as well,” he said.

Tapert also admits that some people don’t trust the port, and reversing that attitude will be an uphill battle.

“We have to turn that around,” he said.

As to what the port will do if the levy fails, Tapert said there are three other alternatives.

The first is to do nothing.

“We can complete Phase I — the initial, smaller version that won’t generate much revenue — under our current 10 cent tax rate which allows us to pay off a long-term bank note,” Tapert explained. “I don’t think that’s a good idea because it would make it financially hard to pay future port obligations.”

The second option is to break the interlocal agreement with Langley, sell the breakwater and go back to the port’s historic functions — maintaining boat launch ramps and parks. This makes it impossible to get matching state funds for other economic development projects, Tapert said.

“You need to own the property before the state will give grant money,” he said.

And finally, there is the much-criticized option of authorizing the creation of an industrial development district. Port officials could create the district without a public vote and raise the property tax levy to 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for up to six years.

“People need to be aware that an [industrial development district] is a definite option,” Tapert said. “I prefer the longer term solution of a levy lift, but the development district is on the table.”

“The question is whether voters prefer to pay less per year over a longer period of time through a levy or simply pay more for six years,” he said.

For a homeowner with a house valued at $350,000, the additional 20-cent levy increase would add roughly $70 per year. All told, the owner of a $350,000 home would pay $105 annually to the port if the tax levy is approved.

However, if the maximum 45 cents per $1,000 were authorized by the port through an industrial development district, the bill to taxpayers would be an additional $157 per year for six years.

Tapert said he’s aware of the competition for tax dollars on the island. Some voters may not think an improved marina should get a bump in higher property taxes over competing needs such as an expanded hospital, new fire district facilities or additional improvements in local schools. But Tapert said economic development is important, too.

“The marina will bring in serious money over its lifetime, providing family wage jobs,” he said.

Clinton resident and boat owner Dave Powers supports the marina, even the levy increase, but has caveats.

“We’ve assumed all along the port would need a levy. The question is, for what?” he asked.

“We aren’t thrilled with only a few slips in Phase I. Our enthusiasm depends on the level of access to the water and more slips.”

“I hope they’ve considered investing in other areas beyond Langley, too. Dry rack boat storage at Bush Point and boat trailer storage at Possession Point are both money-makers,” Powers said.

The next port meeting is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 14 at the Freeland Library.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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