[vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune
A conditional-use permit that allowed Clearwater Canyon Cellars to operate in a garage was close to expiring when the winery found a home at the Port of Lewiston’s business incubator.
Without that space in 2007, the growing winery might have folded, owner Coco Umiker said.
“(The Port of Lewiston keeps) the American dream alive at a time when it’s really hard,” she said.
Umiker was one of more than 20 port tenants, farmers and business leaders who spoke during a two-hour hearing Wednesday in support of the port’s $2.15 million fiscal year 2016 budget. About five people questioned the direction the port is headed.
Port commissioners unanimously passed the budget after the hearing and set the port’s tax levy revenue at $420,000 for the coming year, a decrease of $30,000 from this year.
At the 2015 level, Port Manager David Doeringsfeld said the owner of a home with an assessed value of $150,000, Nez Perce County’s average, is paying $12.30 in property taxes to the port after the homeowner’s exemption.
The port doesn’t yet have an estimate for how much that will change with the reduction.
Port property tax revenue is earmarked for infrastructure development, not day-to-day operations. The largest such project in the budget is for installation of a fiber-optic network in Lewiston. Its capacity will be wholesaled to telecommunications providers at a set rate to carry telephone calls, provide Internet service or transfer data.
In addition to the decrease in property tax revenue, the budget also includes changes because the port is not currently handling containers that are barged to Portland, Ore. Container traffic has stopped for the first time since 1978. (See related story.)
Total spending for employees’ wages and benefits has dropped by $233,000 to $367,000 since positions have been eliminated. Port employees aren’t getting raises.
Even though the port has no container traffic now, it still has an important role to play in economic development and deserves every dollar of tax revenue it receives, many supporters said.
The manufacturing base in Lewiston thrived during the recession when it tanked in other parts of the country. Many of the area’s successful factories are on properties developed by the port, in projects that would have been too risky for the private sector to take on, said University of Idaho economist Steve Peterson, who has done an economic assessment of the port.
That growth happened even though other communities are constantly trying to attract companies that provide living wage jobs with bags of goodies such as free land and buildings.
“They’ll even offer to help you pack,” Peterson said.
But not everyone is a fan of how the Port of Lewiston functions.
Ken Krahn of Lewiston objected to the port taking any property tax money, given that it has millions stashed away in the bank from megaload shipments and previous land sales.
Linwood Laughy of Kooskia said the port should plan for the possibility of having to return $1.3 million in federal grant money used for its 2013 container dock extension.
A complaint has been filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation alleging false and misleading statements were used in the grant application, he said.
The Tribune was unable to determine the status of the complaint Wednesday.
The port hasn’t been contacted by the department in any way about a complaint and is confident the application was factual, Doeringsfeld said. It has asked the department for an expedited review of any complaint and he said the port will respond quickly and transparently to any department inquiries.
Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]