Port calls temporary timeout on tax increase

FREELAND — Saying they needed more time to convince voters of the merits of a tax increase, Port of South Whidbey commissioners decided this week to back away from an August vote on a proposal to triple the port’s property tax levy.

It was voted down but not abandoned. Port commissioners will consider putting the ballot proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot at a future meeting.

“We are not giving up on the plan; it’s too important,” said Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle.

Earlier this month, commissioners proposed a ballot measure that would triple the port’s current property tax levy from

10 to 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. A resolution that would have sent the proposal to the county for placement on the Aug. 19 ballot was rejected at the port meeting on Wednesday by a 2-0 vote. Seitle and Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden voted against the passage of the resolution, while Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert abstained from the vote without an explanation.

Port commissioners have said a tax increase is needed to fund the construction of a 110-slip marina in Langley after the port takes over the city marina in January 2009.

Commissioners have indicated the proposed property tax increase — the biggest in the port’s

47-year history — would pay for more than just the new marina, which is expected to cost up to

$20 million.

The resolution considered this week by port commissioners said the port would be able to use the tax revenues from the ballot measure for anything the port deems necessary, from maintenance and operations to any other port projects.

A crowd of nearly two dozen filled the Freeland Library to lobby for the marina project, or to voice concerns about the port’s proposal to raise taxes.

After several boaters endorsed the project, Ron LaCour from Freeland wanted to know how the non-boating public would benefit from the marina.

“Why do I have to pay more taxes so other people can come here with their boats? I don’t have a boat,” LaCour said.

“I hope we don’t have to bail you guys out of a bad decision down the road, like the mess the Port of Coupeville is in,” he said, referring to the current financial crisis in Coupeville that’s been blamed on the public purchase of Greenbank Farm.

Seitle said the proposed marina has the potential to generate an economic boost of $3.2 million annually, however.

“If we were a private enterprise, we could seek venture capital. But we have no other practical funding source other than voters,” Seitle said.

Port officials did not specify how they would use revenues from the tax hike beyond the marina project, although Port Commissioner Tapert said that was in the plan.

There are a number of revenue-generating projects found in the port’s comprehensive plan, he said.

“The money we raise isn’t just for the marina,” Tapert said.

Joe Murphy from Clinton said he supports the marina project but not the tax increase. He said there were too many unanswered questions.

“How much money are you predicting the marina will generate after its built, what’s the cost and has the design been finalized?” he asked. “There’s got to be other ways to get the marina paid for.” Murphy added.

Others who testified raised concerns about the marina’s design, and said a fuel dock was needed as well as improvements that would attract divers.

Seitle said the port needed more time to promote the tax increase.

“We need to show the public this is a sound business proposition and we’ll need more time to get the facts before the public,” he said.

Commissioner Slinden agreed with Seitle that the levy should be on the November ballot.

“We must have time to tell people, ‘This is what you’re getting for the money.’ If they turn us down, that tells us a lot,” she said.

But Tapert said he was against delaying the vote.

“I don’t want to move forward with the marina until we know exactly when, how and where the money to build it is coming from,” he said.

He added that putting the proposal on the ballot in August would give commissioners the chance to see precisely how South Whidbey voters feel about the levy increase. The tax revenues are vital, Tapert added.

“I want funding for all the port’s goals, not just the marina,” he said.

Sounding a refrain that has become familiar in recent days — that news reports are hurting the port’s chances at getting a tax increase approved by voters — Seitle had another reason for delaying the levy vote.

“If the paper is not behind a fair evaluation, we will lose in August,” he said.

Commissioners then voted to reject the resolution calling for the tax increase to be put on the August primary ballot.

Tapert said later he had a good reason for abstaining from the vote.

“I saw where it was going and I wanted to make a statement,” Tapert said. “I just want to know what the public thinks and the best way is a vote, sooner than later.”

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