PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County auditor’s office began a signature-verification process this week for a petition filed by a committee asking for a public vote on a possible multi-year levy.
Port of Port Townsend commissioners voted unanimously in March to exercise a state law that would allow them to run a second property tax levy for up to 20 years.
The levy, which still needs to go through the port’s budgeting process and commissioner approval, would focus on recreational infrastructure and economic development projects throughout the county, Commission Chair Bill Putney said. It would have a maximum of $0.45 per $1,000 of assessed valuation per year.
But before commissioners discussed implementing the levy, a committee formed to ask that such a vote go to the public.
David Neuenschwander of Quilcene, a leader for the Committee for Port Accountability, was a public observer Tuesday morning as county Election Coordinator Betty Johnson worked with her staff to verify petition signatures.
The committee turned in about 2,330 signatures by June 19 and needs 1,643 to be validated in order to be sufficient, according to the auditor’s office. The validation number is required to be 8 percent of the 20,539 voters who participated in the 2016 general election.
Johnson said the state recently issued a new electronic voting system, which isn’t yet set up to verify signatures. Instead, elections staff members were cross-checking names with addresses on each voter’s registration electronically.
The process was expected to last at least through today and possibly through Friday, Johnson said.
Neuenschwander said his goal isn’t to support or oppose the port’s levy process but to bring the issue before the county as opposed to three elected port commissioners.
“We are looking to ask for a vote of the people as allowed by law,” he said.
The law also allows for the port to run a levy for its industrial development district, which was formed in 1966. It has done so only once in the past, Putney said, when it raised $0.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in the late 1960s.
Port Deputy Director Eric Toews said in March the district is facing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure deficiencies.
“The port commission really feels that we need to have some additional monies to maintain our infrastructure and to do more economic development projects that we have on the books to do,” Putney said.
All state taxing districts have been limited by an annual 1 percent cap on growth, and Putney said that’s not allowing the port to keep up with maintenance.
“The recreational infrastructure that isn’t paid for by tenants of the port — the things everybody in the county enjoys — don’t have a way of recovering costs,” he said.
Neuenschwander said he didn’t set out to form a committee.
“I sent out things through my email list, and it grew from there,” he said. “People I didn’t know were collecting signatures.”
Port commissioners recently discussed the possibility of rescinding the March resolution for the levy. That would reverse the possibility of the need for a public vote.
However, they didn’t take action because private groups suggested they could raise money to put on a public campaign, Putney said.
Port commissioners would not be allowed to campaign.
If enough petition signatures are verified, then the only way the port could move forward is through a countywide vote.
That’s all Neuenschwander is asking for.
“For the first multi-year levy, voters got no chance,” he said.
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].