The Port’s Tax

In July I took on the painful task of admitting I missed the port’s January 2006 action that launched a 90-day window in which voters could have forced an election. In that entry I wrote:

Somehow, we all missed it. I’m still not certain how this became such a perfect storm of deflection and inattention, and I’m still in the process of following the bread crumbs.

Now, as general election ballots are about to be dropped in the mail, I’ve done about as much bread-crumb gathering as I can. On Sunday we have a lengthy story providing history and hindsight into the port commissioners’ decision to levy the tax. Kitsap Sun editor Scott Ware also writes a column explaining the newspaper’s role in missing the key events. I’ll post links to both when they are available.

For me, nothing changes the fact that I missed it. I said it in July and it’s still true. I do understand better why.

In September 2005 I ended three years of covering Bainbridge Island for the paper. I was asked if I wanted to take on the Central Kitsap beat. Our family was moving from Poulsbo to a home between Ilahee and Brownsville. It seemed like a good idea.

Within a month Bremerton reporter Eric Williams moved to the sports desk and the editors offered me the Bremerton beat. In the meantime, it was going to be months before we hired a Central Kitsap reporter to replace me, so I covered both until Brynn Grimley was hired.

Not long after I took on Bremerton, then-local news editor Ann Strosnider told me she’d like me to take on the role of lead NASCAR speedway proposal reporter. Personally, I’m glad I accepted, but it did add a pretty significant item to cover.

Oh, and let’s not forget that in December of 2005 we launched the blogs. More work. More fun. Same hours. Same pay.

It was clear to me at the time that my two major responsibilities were Bremerton, the city, and the speedway proposal. Everything else was secondary, including the port. Ware explains the context there in his column, as well as a discussion of balancing coverage between meetings and people stories.

Prior to my taking on the Bremerton beat, the port was a bit of a shared responsibility. It remained that way when I took over. I was most interested in matters that were specific to Bremerton, or the speedway. There was plenty else to do, too. Around the time the commissioners approved the notice of intent to levy, I wrote three stories about Adam Brockus getting arrested, two about the downtown-to-Evergreen boardwalk, two about the speedway, one about local real estate sales, one about Mervyns closing and one about the state auditor’s thoughts on performance audits. The range was wide and it was all still pretty new to me.

I attended port meetings only when the issues directly affected Bremerton. Someone, I can’t remember who, alerted me the Bremerton Marina covered slips conversation might be contentious at the Jan. 10, 2006 meeting. So I went. It was.

If my memory is correct, I believe I asked about the two tax measures, but was told they were procedural matters that had to be done in case the port decided to use them, but the commissioners were not actually passing the tax itself.

Our job as reporters is to be skeptical, not just because public officials might try to mislead us, but because even if they aren’t lying to us they might be wrong. Whoever said the matter was procedural was telling the truth in one sense, but leaving out something pretty important. Had I investigated the matter, read the notice in our paper, checked out the state law and understood it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I would have written a story. Residents within the port district would have had what they needed to make a decision. I wasn’t skeptical enough.

In Sunday’s story I show how the commissioners, one in particular, from the Port of Vancouver went to significantly greater effort to get the IDD issue public there. Residents gathered signatures and put the matter to a vote. I don’t put the Vancouver story in there to show how things should work, because in my role I’m not generally supposed to tell people how to act. I put it in there to show how things can work. And from years of experience covering governments, I can tell you that often it’s the way things do work.

After it all, however, I don’t have any evidence to suggest that Port of Bremerton commissioners willfully hid this from voters. Honestly, I’m not sure they all understood the significance of what they were doing in January 2006. You can make the argument that if they didn’t know, they should have known.

The other element that plays into this is that I don’t think I ever imagined a port could pass something of this magnitude, nor that publishing a notice for a tax the commissioners hadn’t decided to pass would have such consequences for voters. So some of the problem is my failure to imagine.

I hope the marina is nice and that it generates the kind of revenue its supporters say it will be. But every time I look it I’ll be reminded of just how important my role of watchdog is. I’ve had my share of successes as a reporter, but I won’t soon forget what happened here.

18 thoughts on “The Port’s Tax

  1. Mr. Gardner,
    I look forward to the articles on Sunday. Your details into everything that was going on in your work and how you concentrated on Bremerton is a good word of warning to all voters and taxpayers. We can not rely on your newspaper or any other news source to fully cover all of our concerns. It is up to each of us to become more involved with our own communities and make our voices heard. Whether it is attending public meetings, reading news articles, or researching on the internet, we as taxpayers and voters have the responsibility to keep ourselves informed. I think many of us are used to being fed the information and do not react until a news article waves the red cape for action. That is our fault, not yours. What the Port of Bremerton did, whether intentional or not, was wrong and underhanded. Any of the many boards, commissions, task forces, etc. are capable of the same thing if not watched closely by the voter and taxpayer. In a government “for the people and by the people” when it fails the people, it is the people who are at fault. This is the taxpayer and the voter. I use those separately because most pay taxes, but not all who can vote, again a problem of and by the people.

  2. Steve,

    While The Sun may have “missed it”, we have elected officials at the Port of Bremerton that should not have taken the easy road and imposed a new tax on property owners without making a concerted effort to get the word out and generate public discussion about the proposal to levy a new tax for a new marina in Bremerton. (and, apparently some other things too).

    I fully understand why people don’t go to meetings. They elect people to go to meetings on their behalf and conduct public business on their behalf. Thus it falls to public officials to get the word out about the matter and go out of their way to engage the press, engage the public, and put the information out there… not just simply “comply with the law”.

    So, my frustration is not so much with the paper, but with those whom we elected. They failed us. I hope they learned a valuable lesson in this. It came at a very dear price to South Kitsap’s school bond campaign.

    Each day, this past summer, the sound of the new marina pilings being driven into place by the pile drivers echoed loudly across the water to Port Orchard. I was up at the high school one afternoon and heard the rythmic booms. It felt like a punch to the chest with every stomp on those pilings.

    Had I known of the Port’s intention, I would have attended a public meeting and asked them which was more important… a new high school in South Kitsap or a new marina in Bremerton, and asked them to reconsider priorities. If they wouldn’t have been willing to reconsider, I would have joined in a signature gathering campaign to put it on the ballot. At least then the public could decide the priorities.

    Kathryn Simpson

  3. I agree with most of what Roger wrote, with the exception of comments regarding the Port being underhanded, and other entities capable of the same if not watched closely.

    Though neither is excusable when there is a legitimate complaint, there is a distinction between those predisposed to doing wrong, and those who err once in a while.

    Finally, I don’t concur with the belief that a skeptical or doubtful disposition is required in order to desire or achieve truth or accuracy.

  4. Steve,
    Can you please post a copy of the publication of notice that the Port of Bremerton put in the Kitsap Sun in Jan 2006. From what I understand it was only a tiny print notice in the Legal section. Had they wanted to be more honest it should have been a half page notice in the first section of paper. Thanks

  5. Rather than a failure of imagination regarding the legal notice, I think it was a failure to realize the general purpose of all legal notices and to find out the specific purpose of this one.

    Before mid-June, I thought the creation of an IDD and adoption of a “comprehensive scheme” enabled the Port to levy the new tax for the first six years without any right of the people to vote — not even by using a petition to put the tax on the ballot.

    My initial criticisms of the Port’s leaders in the first half of this year were that they had not led by showing the public the worthwhile nature of the expenditure — not before the bills arrived and not afterwards when the school district and library district had to try to weather the storm.

    I didn’t criticize them for having evaded our right to petition to place the tax on the ballot, because I didn’t know we had such a right.

    I finally realize why I thought so. I knew that somewhere in the past I had wondered about the Port’s taxing authority, and had concluded that when they wanted to stick it to us they could.

    Your article’s statement that the Sun ran an article in 2004 told me where to focus my search among my pile of electronic copies of articles to see if I had saved whatever made me wonder back then. There it was — an article by Eric Williams published in the Sun on Jan. 10, 2004.

    That article stated, regarding a meeting to “brainstorm” ways of funding the marina project:

    “Two interesting ideas that emerged during the morning study session included creating an industrial development district for downtown Bremerton.

    “The Bremerton City Council already approved a community renewal designation for its downtown district and Westpark in October.

    “The designation will help the city secure federal funds to improve those distressed areas.

    “The Port also could pursue an industrial development district in downtown Bremerton, which would allow the Port to impose a tax of up to 45 cents per $1,000 on county taxpayers for up to six years without a vote.

    “The tax would be on top of the money the Port already collects, which is 47.66 cents per $1,000 per assessed value on county resident’s property taxes. That amounts to a property tax bill of $47.66 on a $100,000 house.

    “The Port used this scenario in the 1960s to pay for infrastructure costs to improve its airport and industrial complex.

    “The Port would have to accomplish several steps in order to impose the tax, Attebery said, including establishing a master plan for the improvement that would take place within the designated district. Attebery emphasized the process would include several opportunities for public input.

    “Darryl Piercy, land-use planner for Kitsap Transit, also suggested consolidating all of the port districts in the county as a means to increase the Port’s tax base and revenue-generating power. Piercy said the move would help the Port in one of its major pursuits — economic development.
    Two possible ideas for funding an $18 million Bremerton Marina expansion emerged from Friday’s meeting:
    • Pursuing an industrial development district would allow the Port of Bremerton to impose a tax of up to 45 cents per $1,000 on county taxpayers for up to six years without a vote. A master plan and public hearings would be required before this could be put in place.”

    I remember reading RCW 53.36.100 back then and fitting what the article said about no need for a public vote into the words of the statute — arriving at the conclusion that “without a vote” meant the Port could take the first six years of the new levy without even a chance for the people to vote.

    In mid-June, when the Independent’s article said this was the second and last six-year levy allowed by current state law, my first reaction was that it couldn’t be so. Then, I dug farther into the law and found that the original statute had stated quite clearly that ports could levy this tax “for twelve years only.” The first six didn’t require a vote, but the second six could only be levied after giving the people a chance to petition to put it on the ballot.

    When the statute was amended in the 90’s to give a third six-year levy authority to counties on the Pacific coast of Washington, the statute was changed to remove the “twelve years only” wording — and I had misunderstood the meaning of the current wording as it spoke of the first, second and third six-year levies. I had thought that each new IDD and “comprehensive scheme” created another round of six year levies — the first six years being imposed with no right to vote or petition to vote.

    Once I had researched it further, I realized that there must have been a legal notice published between Jan. 1 and June of 2006 to comply with RCW 53.36.100 and give the voters a chance (albeit not a sporting chance under these circumstances) to petition and place the tax on the ballot for their approval or rejection.

    I asked the Port for a copy of the legal notice, and the Port’s reply provided a transcription of its text. (It might be interesting to see the actual published legal notice, as Don notes above.)

    The notice stated, among other things, the one key fact — that it was required by RCW 53.36.100(2). This fact was key, because it meant that under that statute there was a right to petition to put the tax on the ballot for the voters to approve or reject.

    Consistently saying, both before and after the tax bills arrived, that no vote of the people was required was only half true.

    Had we known of the legal notice, we would have known the whole truth in time to take action, if anyone wanted to.

    Was the key fact of a right to petition to place the tax on the ballot really never stated within earshot of any reporter or member of the public who might be inclined to petition for a vote? Hard to believe, isn’t it? But even back in January 2004, the reported statements of Attebery indicate that he didn’t say anything in public about this particular opportunity for “public input.”

  6. “Was the key fact of a right to petition to place the tax on the ballot really never stated within earshot of any reporter or member of the public who might be inclined to petition for a vote?”

    It was never said within earshot of me.

  7. I think that an important and somewhat dangerous problem is the law itself that establish an IDD dictrict that is run by officals that can vote among themselves to raise taxes of the public.Can law be thrown out?

    Why would a person living 10-15 miles away from Bremerton marina have any concern at all about a new marina?

    Port Commissioners should have hollered from the roof tops,not whisper from the back of the room,that all of this was going to take place.They could seen that the newspapers ran it on front pages if they where totaly commited to the publics well being.

  8. Ironically the total cost of the marina is the same full infrastructure cost of building out SKIA. The City of Bremerton and ISC did a facilities plan that identified all the costs to bring roads, sewer power and water up to code to create and industrial job center in 2006

  9. Mr Gardner: Thank you for the recent articles on the Port of Bremerton tax issue. I have not participated in a Blog before so I am not certain you will recieve this message.
    I am all for downtown Bremerton redevelopement however I feel those most likely to benifit from this should be paying for these improvements. That the financial professionals said a revenue bond would not pencil out, should have been a red flag to this over budget marina. This is one project where “user fees ” should provide a large portion of the developement costs and debt service. Ditto for the upscale conduminiums being marketed in the area. We tax payers helped underwrite the loans for one of the projects through the KC consulidated Housing Authority. No wonder Mr McLoughlin was keen on the marina as they have a stake in the property values in that neighborhood. The developers get the breaks thru his quasi public entity while those who try to purchase them have no such benifit. Also notice that a significant number of the units are being purchased on a speculation basis by the local real estate brokers involved in the marketing of these properties. bob pilger, port orchard .

  10. I don’t believe you could repeal the authority to establish “industrial development districts,” unless you could somehow get the people of Washington to abandon the idea of using government for what is usually called “economic development.”

    The Port of Bremerton has now used its second and last special six-year levy. No matter how many IDDs it creates, it cannot again impose one of these special six-year levies unless the state law is amended to authorize a third shot at us.

    Creating an IDD doesn’t give them the power to levy the special tax, it merely defines a new area in which they can spend our money. The adoption of a “comprehensive scheme” (as the statute calls it) is what allows the Port to levy this special tax, and the Port’s comprehensive scheme was adopted decades ago. This comprehensive scheme is something that encompasses all the Port’s capital planning, so it changes as one or another project is added, deleted, or completed.

    They had the same authority to levy this six-year property tax before creating the second “IDD” as they did after creating it, but they needed to create the IDD to define a new area in which they could spend our money.

    Note that the IDD encompasses more than the water area where the Port already had a marina and therefore could have spent our money without creating an IDD. It also includes the area upland of the water’s edge all the way to Washington Ave. on the west and a line extending from 6th Street out to the water, so I suppose the Port will be using our money for other things within the IDD in the future. I’m sure they’ll get around to telling us about it some day, although they haven’t told us of the change to state law this last session that they pushed through to give them the authority to acquire, build, maintain, and operate tourist-related facilities. Their purpose for this amendment to the state law was to do more in the Bremerton waterfront area. (That made the papers down in the Vancouver area in April, but not here.)

    Keep in mind that the statute can be amended at some point in the future to give the Port another shot at us, just as it was amended several years ago to give ports in counties bordering the Pacific Ocean a third special six-year levy authority. If you hear even a hint of such an idea, you might want to speak to your legislators.

    Also keep in mind that the Port can — once it has paid down some of the debt incurred for this marina project — impose an additional levy on us to repay what are usually called “nonvoted bonds.” The nonvoted bonds for repair of the Port Orchard marina are scheduled to be paid off in 2009. The nonvoted bonds for the Bremerton marina are scheduled to be paid off in 2012.

    The Port can issue nonvoted bonds and levy the tax to pay for them without our approval, so long as it stays within its nonvoted bond debt limit. The $17.7 million in bonds issued in Oct. 2006 to pay for the Bremerton marina took the Port up to what was then its nonvoted bond debt limit. The limit is now higher than it was then. Going even higher than the limit requires a vote of the people — which is probably the major reason the Bremerton marina won’t have covered moorage. They couldn’t add on that extra expense without going to us for a vote, and if the topic of a vote had been raised back in Jan. 2006….

  11. Thanks for posting this full story, as well as Scott’s column. He is spot on.

    It’s too easy to say what one would have done if they’d gotten wind of certain information. Given all the attention then focused on NASCAR, it’s just as likely it would have continued to go unnoticed by comparison. Citizens honing in on this issue are equally likely to be missing out on other notices, meetings, or discussions on issues of relevance.

    The Port and Sun stepped up to concede they could have done more. Some citizens also could have paid more attention. It’s time for them to concede as well.

  12. Ms. Keating

    Interesting article, but since you have said that SEED firms are interested in profits over growth, this will eliminate many of them from VC. VC’s want growth so that they can get good return on the two or three companies that are succesful for each ten they invest in. If SEED is courting low growth companies, we will not see any of the type of firms that are in this article.

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