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Opinion | We need fiscal responsibility and stewardship at the Port of Olympia

A Port for the people

Many people don’t realize that the Port of Olympia serves all of Thurston County, that all county property owners pay property taxes to support the Port, and that Port Commission races are county-wide. That means that all Thurston County voters have the opportunity to vote in the election for Port commissioners, and help set the direction of the Port moving into the future.

The Port of Olympia election is coming up, with ballots coming out October 18th, and I would like to explain why it is so important for voters in Thurston County to vote for Port Candidates Bill Fishburn and current Port Commissioner E.J. Zita, running for positions 2 and 3, respectively. This election is particularly important in that if both Fishburn and Zita win, together they will make up a majority of the three-member commission and will then have the ability to enact the reforms that we so desperately need at the Port today.

Why E.J. Zita and Bill Fishburn

After having taken a hard look at what is going on down at the Port, and having had a number of conversations with these candidates, I am convinced that E.J. Zita and Bill Fishburn will bring significantly greater fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship, and democratic accountability to the Port of Olympia — qualities the Port of Olympia today desperately needs. I believe they will create a Port that genuinely respects and serves all the People of Thurston County, a “Port for the People,” rather than a Port that serves a handful of special interests at the expense of the broader public.

Politics as usual

I see a Port misusing taxpayer dollars to prop up enterprises that consistently lose millions of dollars a year.  I see negligence in adequately addressing and cleaning up the toxic soil and pollution left behind by Port industries in years past. I see a huge lost opportunity to redirect taxpayer money toward enterprises that benefit the community, bring good paying jobs that will be self-supporting. I see a flagrant disregard and disrespect toward the concerned citizens that have brought forward legitimate concerns about what is happening at the Port today.

The reason for these failings at the Port today lies with Commissioners whose campaigns are supported and financed by business interests that draw a profit from Port operations.  But don’t rely just on my statement – look to who is bankrolling the candidates. 

Who bankrolls the candidates?

One current Port commissioner, Bill McGregor, who is running against Fishburn, has led the way on the mismanagement of public money.  Not surprisingly, his campaign is being bankrolled by the same companies whose profitability depends on the Port. On the Public Disclosure Commission website, you will find that McGregor’s top contributors include logging, developer, and shipping interests.  You’ll see Holbrook, Inc., which operates the Port log sorting yard, Brusco Tug & Barge and SSA Marine, which is among the world’s largest privately held marine terminal operators. These are all big corporations hoping to continue to profit from McGregor’s election, and they are among his top campaign contributors.

If you look at Gigi McClure, who is running against Zita, her major support comes from real estate and development interests. These companies are not donating to McGregor and McClure out of the goodness of their heart or an interest the community, but because they are profiting from Port enterprises—enterprises that, tellingly, are money-losing operations.

Wasting taxpayer money

One of the most important things people need to know about Ports in the State of Washington, is that Port business units are intended to be self-supporting, just like other businesses. Once they are established, businesses that benefit from Port infrastructure are not supposed to keep calling on tax payer subsidies to operate, but are supposed to generate revenue from fees for services and other sources sufficient to compensate the port. Yet, despite this basic expectation of fiscal responsibility, three of the five Port business units lose money year after year. The marine terminal operation lost $1.7 million last year. Peninsula Properties, the Port’s real estate enterprise, lost over $600,000.  Swantown Marina lost $300,000.

Altogether, the Port lost more than $4.5 million on business operations last year. This is nothing new—rather it is a consistent pattern year after year. As a result, the Port leadership year after year has shifted the burden to Thurston County taxpayers to cover these losses.  That is not the way it is supposed to work, but that is the way it does work at the Port of Olympia, year after year.  And that’s the way that the supporters of McGregor and McClure hope to see it continue.

Other Ports contribute to their communities

In contrast, the Port of Tacoma last year raised more than $20 million in net revenue from their operations. This comes after covering all of their operating and non-operating expenses, including interest on debt. And not just Tacoma, but the Port of Port Angeles marine terminal made more than $2 million and the Port of Everett marine terminal made $1.7 million last year. To reemphasize: the Port of Olympia marine terminal alone lost $1.7 million last year; the Port overall lost $4.5 million.

The real tragedy here is not just in the tax money being wasted, but in the lost opportunities that those millions could have brought to Thurston County. Imagine instead that this money was being invested in self-sustaining enterprises that make sense in today’s South Sound economy – endeavors consistent with our values, which lead to sustainable, good paying jobs.

A new direction

Fortunately, in this election we have an opportunity to clean up Port politics and make a major course correction at the Port. Fishburn and Zita are not backed by shipping, real estate, or developer interests, but by a grassroots movement of concerned citizens wanting to bring greater fiscal, social, and environmental responsibility to the Port. I am convinced that that is exactly what these candidates will do.

So that is why I am supporting Fishburn and Zita for the Port of Olympia Commission. I urge all WIP readers to support their campaigns with generous donations, if possible. Most importantly, please vote this November for Fishburn and Zita for Port Commission.

Jeff Sowers has lived in Thurston County for many years. He graduated from Capital High School in 1982, from the University of Washington with a degree in Physics in 1987, and went on to become a public high school math and science teacher. For the past 17 years, he has taught math and environmental science at East Grays Harbor High School, a small alternative high school in the Elma School District. He is also a precinct committee officer for the Thurston County Democrats from the Ames precinct.


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