If you don't pay taxes and don't work, then the Port of Seattle Commission elections likely won't interest you. The Port took $58 million in taxes from King County residents last year and directly provided 82,000 jobs. Indirectly, its airport and seaport operations inspire one in every three regional jobs. The five part-time commissioners are paid $6,000 a year plus $8,400 in per diem expenses and rack up thousands more in travel costs.
In other words, there's a lot at stakeif only in keeping Executive Director Mic Dinsmore from making too many trips to the bank, and that's not been happening lately. Commissioners recently gave him a 4.5 percent raise at a time when 50 workers had to be laid off at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Besides the $100,000 or more he spends on annual travel, Dinsmore now makes $262,000 a year, or $100,000 more than the governor. Commissioners say he's earned it. But fisherman Pete Knutson points out that the Port made about $60,000 last year by contentiously opening up Fishermen's Terminal berths to yachters. "Guess that covers Mic's raise," says Knutson.
Among the commissioners approving the raise, two are facing re-election: Bob Edwards in Position 2 and Clare Nordquist in Position 5. Both think the Port is sailing smoothly financially, while their opponents say that's not so.
Edwards' challenger, Jim Baker, thinks the Port faces a debt as deep as $3 billion through its disputed commitment to build a third Sea-Tac runway"environmentally, a disaster," Baker says. A lawyer making his first run for public office, Baker seems to have little chance of unseating Edwards, a freshman incumbent who notes that the Port doubled its cargo operations in the past two years and expects solid growth ahead. A stockbroker and former Renton City Council member who is rated "very good" by the Municipal League, Edwards outpolled Baker in the primary by more than 2-to-1. He also was the one commissioner who opposed a 37 percent tax increase to fund a cruise-ship terminal and airport noise mitigation.
IN POSITION 5, Nordquist, an Eastside venture capitalist and frequent flier on the taxpayer dollar, says the Port's mission is to be the region's economic engine. "Our job right now is focusing on creating jobs in this region," and the Port is doing that to the tune of 8,000 jobs a year, he says.
Opponent Alec Fisken doesn't think the Port is thriving. "The Port of Seattle is not in good shape, it's not competitively in good shape," he says. Fisken is a former investment banker and marine news publisher who works in the city's Office of Policy and Management. His challenge of Nordquist shapes up as one of the closest contests in 2003. The Municipal League rates both candidates "outstanding," and they finished just 4 percentage points apart in the four- person primary, despite Nordquist's weightier bankroll.
Fisken says last fall's $58 million tax levy was a North American record for ports and that "a big chunk of it" was spent to cover operating losses in the seaport division. In contrast, he says, the Port of Vancouver and its tenants paid $55 million (Canadian) in property taxes to the cities in which it operates.
Nordquist says, "Alex and I absolutely disagree on the condition of the Port. We have the best bond rating in the world and the best credit rating in the world of any port." As for that tax hike, says Nordquist, "I hope we never have to do it again."