Differing opinions emerge on Port of Port Townsend levy resolution

Road ahead uncertain after citizen petition challenge is certified

PORT TOWNSEND — Legal authorities for both the Port of Port Townsend and Jefferson County are at odds now that the Industrial Development District levy vote challenge by a citizen petition has been certified by the county auditor.

“There seems to be a differing of opinion about whether or not we are compelled to have a vote,” Port of Port Townsend board President Bill Putney said. “If we rescind our IDD resolution, whether it needs to go to a vote, there’s essentially nothing for the people to vote on. So it would be, in some sense, an advisory vote.”

Port commissioners have postponed their final vote on the Industrial Development District until the July 24 business meeting hoping to get more information from counsel, the county attorney, the state and the auditor.

Putney said the county’s attorney “seems to think that his reading of the RCWs is that it must go to a vote since the petition was successful.”

Port Attorney Frank Chmelik of Chmelik, Sitkin & Davis cited RCW 56.36.160(2) as the state statute that applies in this case.

“It provides for the second levy,” Chmelik said.

“Years ago the port issued one six-year levy. So if the port intends to tax under this, the second levy, it has to have a published notice of its intention and have people discuss it and pass the intention in the form of a resolution. And that’s what was done.

“The statue is silent on what happens between the time you pass the resolution and the time the ballots are printed. If you indicate that you no longer have an intention, it’s my reading there is no reason for a vote because you’ve withdrawn your intention and it would be in the nature of an advisory ballot.”

Chmelik said the port’s intention is the issue, not the petition.

“If the port isn’t going to do it, what’s the purpose of the vote? And we don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars.”

Jefferson County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Philip Hunsucker said the county has not made a final decision on the question but has spoken with Chmelik.

“The port’s attorney will be presenting a letter explaining the legal basis for the port’s position that the port can rescind the resolution before the ballot is published on August 6, thereby keeping it off the November ballot. The prosecuting attorney will analyze that letter and provide a letter of opinion to the auditor.”

Hunsucker said there is not a lot of case law on this issue but believes the auditor has the discretion to decide the issue.

Commissioner Pete Hanke said no matter what, the port is in a financial crisis and something needs to be done.

“We as port commissioners have already determined — and none of us are backtracking — that we are in a crisis mode in terms of the state of our infrastructure, the state of our finances, and our ability to even address some of the infrastructure needs, let alone do any economic development,” Hanke said. “I don’t think that’s a very difficult argument to communicate to the public.

“Whether it is an IDD or levy lift lid, we are raising property taxes for the port to pay for infrastructure needs and economic development. What is the harm in coming to the public twice? It doesn’t change the need. It’s still there. Asking the community for more money is still there. It’s my opinion that we do more harm if we didn’t put it on the ballot.”

“Or we just face the consequences,” he said. “We have to keep the port solvent and if that means selling some assets, we start selling some assets.”

Commissioner Steve Tucker is not convinced the Industrial Development District is the right path at this time.

“My concern is if we do an IDD, it’s a finite amount of money for a finite term,” Tucker said. “If we instead do a levy lid lift, that is permanent. It’s a longer-term investment in the port.

“The other concern is in order for this to pass we are going to need a groundswell of public support. We aren’t going to succeed if we don’t have all the people on board supporting this saying they want this to happen.”

Tucker said the reason he’s hesitant about asking twice is “if we get a resounding black eye from this, it will just be a bigger hill to climb next year when we do have support.”

Putney said getting the word out to the voters will be a challenging task.

“I think it’s very difficult to get a nuanced meaning out to a bunch of people who are not very aware that the port exists or what it does, or that it’s just not the Port of Port Townsend for the city of Port Townsend,” he said. “To go beyond that and say there’s this kind of tax and there’s that kind of tax and they’re both property taxes and they’re both coming out of your pocket and which one would you rather have, well, that’s a four-page spread in the newspaper, once a month for six months.

“People are going to decide this issue based on a sound bite,” Putney said.”And however many more sound bites people can get to hear of our sound bite rather than someone else’s, that’s what’s going to be the thing.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].

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