South Whidbey port explains tax hike reversal

Port of South Whidbey commissioners said this week they moved too quickly when they floated an idea to triple the port’s property tax levy to pay for improvements at the Langley Marina.

The potential tax hike proved poisonous with South Whidbey residents, and commissioners backtracked last week and chopped their proposed increase by 5 cents.

“It was premature for us to ask for 20 cents,” said Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden.

“We didn’t have a set design for the marina and didn’t calculate the amount we needed,” she said.

The latest plan is to raise the levy tax rate 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed property tax. Commissioners also said they would limit the duration of the tax to 20 years, versus the earlier proposal for a permanent increase. They are also backing away from using the tax increase to pay for a broad range of port projects, and have instead said the hike would be targeted to the marina project.

An even bigger reversal: Port commissioners took the idea of creating an industrial development district off the table. Port officials could have formed the district and assessed taxes for the marina without a public vote, a suggestion that found many critics on South Whidbey.

Slinden said the focus is to sharpen up the design, cost and tax rate needed.

“We need to identify the total amount of funding for the marina that will still be affordable given the current economy. As a small business owner, I am fully cognizant of how people are feeling on South Whidbey,” she added.

In order to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot, the port must submit a resolution to the county no later than Aug. 12.

“We have our engineering team working on the design and our financial advisor is scoping out the costs,” she said. “Our last chance is on July 9 to make a final decision and it’s critical to stay on track.”

Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle said the public supported the marina makeover — before the talk turned to paying for the project.

“There has always been overwhelming support until we started dealing with finances,” he said.

“The initial hope and excitement has been replaced with a sense of denial,” Seitle said.

At the last port meeting, 42 local residents gathered to pepper officials with questions about the Langley Marina’s design and financing.

“Clearly, we want to lower the burden as much as possible,” Seitle said, referring to the proposed drop in the levy rate.

Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert noted that things had changed since January.

“We’ve gone from a huge plan to a smaller concept and the voters need to approve,” he said. “We’ve zeroed in on Phase I, which we originally believed could be paid for out-of-pocket, but now we need voter help.”

The result will be a protected marina and a clear boundary with fewer slips — from 20 to 40 — but with room to grow, he said.

Tapert, however, added that the initial levy won’t be enough to finance the entire marina.

“Eventually, we’ll have to ask for a second levy to finish Phase II,” he said.

Seitle added that, even if the levy passes muster with voters on Nov. 4, the port would still need to take out a bank loan initially to pay the contractors.

He said that his own appraisal is that the port will receive about $600,000 a year more if voters approve at the 15 cent rate. Under his calculations, total revenue generated to the port would be roughly $1,050,000 beginning in 2010.

If voters don’t approve, the port could dramatically change the project’s scale but Seitle wouldn’t speculate on what form that would take.

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