Nez Perce County residents may see their property taxes decrease next year, courtesy of the Port of Lewiston.
A $30,000 reduction in the port’s annual levy to $420,000 is one of the changes Lewiston port commissioners evaluated Tuesday as they crafted the budget for the 2016 fiscal year. It would be the first levy drop in about 10 years.
The possibility arose because commissioners said the numbers indicate the port can meet its needs without digging as deeply into taxpayers’ pockets.
The talks come at a critical time for the port, which isn’t shipping containers for the first time since its founding in the late 1970s.
The last container carrier that regularly called on the Port of Portland in Oregon recently left. Dry peas and lentils used to be loaded onto barges in Lewiston to be shipped down the Snake and Columbia rivers before being transferred to ocean-going vessels in Portland.
The revenue loss is anticipated to be minimal, since container volume had dwindled to a small fraction of historic levels. The port cut two positions after the announcement and reduced another employee to half time. The port forecasts salary and benefits for employees will be $362,788 in the coming year, compared with $599,921 this year.
However, the change has raised new questions in some quarters about the port’s purpose. Such political pressure wasn’t a part of the tax levy decision, commissioners said.
While port commissioners said they believe they will need less from taxpayers, they expect they will dip into a $4.5 million reserve account, where proceeds from land sales and revenue from megaloads have accumulated. More than $575,000 from that account is slated to be funneled into a $950,000 project to install a new fiber-optic network in Lewiston.
The network is the largest single expense in the $2 million preliminary budget, a figure that’s up about $80,500 compared with this year, because spending on infrastructure would almost double.
One of the main arteries of the fiber network would run along 17th Street, from downtown Lewiston to the industrial area near the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport. Another would follow East Main Street toward Clearwater Paper and the Lewiston Livestock Market. By 2018, the network is expected to make $77,500 annually for the port.
Using savings for major infrastructure upgrades is common and has been done numerous times, Port Manager David Doeringsfeld said, including when the port was developing the business and technology park where Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories has its Lewiston location.
The port might use even more money from that account before it finalizes the budget. The Lewiston Urban Renewal Agency is seeking a financial contribution for $1 million in improvements to 18th Street North in the Lewiston port district.
The road connects State Highway 128 with the Lewis-Clark Terminal, where bulk grain barges are loaded. It is slated to be rebuilt with sidewalks for non-motorized traffic as visibility is upgraded at its intersection with Highway 128.
Commissioner Jerry Klemm said the request made him wonder why the port was being asked to help with city streets, even though he’s not against helping.
“It’s kind of tough to take,” he said.
The city, not the port, is the entity that gets gas tax money to help with streets, Doeringsfeld said, even though the allocation doesn’t begin to meet the needs.
Anticipated cooperation between the port, the city of Lewiston and the urban renewal agency was one of the reasons 18th Street North was ranked so high as a project by the agency board, said Port Commissioner Mary Hasenoehrl, who represents the port on the urban renewal agency board.
Commissioners asked port staff to get more information about the idea from the city of Lewiston and expect to return to the topic at their meeting at noon May 6. The budget will also be discussed again at a meeting set for 8 a.m. May 13. It is scheduled to be finalized June 10.
Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.