Important questions still surround ‘off-year election’ in the area

Contributing writerOctober 13, 2013 

We’re now well into what is colloquially referred to as an “off-year election,” meaning that there are no federal or statewide races cluttering up the ballot.

But that doesn’t mean there are no interesting races to pay attention to. If anything, the off-year election allows for more attention to be focused on regional races and issues.

That city to the north has a mayor’s race of some contentiousness going on (Tacoma’s incumbent mayor is on the ballot here, but unopposed). There’s an initiative on the state ballot on labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms that’s similarly stirring debate. City Council and school board races abound.

And in both Pierce and King counties, there are races that fall under the collective umbrella of this pressing question: What are we to do with our ports?

Or they should anyway, not that there’s much discussion of that question.

There’s no shortage of candidates, although the Port of Seattle races are the more contested ones. All four positions on the ballot have two candidates listed. For the Port of Tacoma, two of three incumbents listed have no opposition.

And there’s no shortage of verbiage from those candidates about the ports, as the voters’ guides due in your mailbox at any moment and the campaign propaganda already arriving will attest.

But there’s also no shortage of redundancy in that outpouring of words. Phrases like “economic engine” and “regional cooperation” (particularly favored by candidates for the Port of Seattle, which has felt stung by Tacoma’s successes in recruiting shipping lines) and jobs and the environment and competitive threats — and by the way did we mention jobs? — recur with such repetitiveness that the reader’s eyes glaze over.

On the big-ticket questions, however — if these ports are such great economic engines, why can’t they support themselves? Is there a long-term plan to wean the ports from the milk of taxpayer subsidies? — silence descends.

All right, that’s not quite true. One candidate, for the Port of Seattle, bluntly headlines his voter’s guide statement “Let’s abolish the unfair $73.0 million port property tax levy” (actually it’s in all-caps mode, but we try to not shout at our readers). That’s followed by a decent summation of the port’s structural and financial problems. Unfortunately, the candidate in question in Richard Pope, who has run for (and lost) offices so many times that he would have secured Harold Stassen status by now, that is if anyone remembered who Harold Stassen was. (One other candidate does call for making the port “less reliant” on a taxpayer subsidy.)

So while those questions are of considerable interest to voters and taxpayers, they’re not likely to be addressed at all, much less answered. Even more unfortunately for voters, the window for asking them is closing, what with ballots in both counties going into the mail this week.

Voters in both counties have no shortage of interesting questions to ask port candidates. For the Port of Seattle, they might ask about the strategic thinking behind opposition to the Sodo Sonics arena, and whether that fight will be revived if the arena plans are. Then there’s Sea-Tac, with all of its own issues.

The Port of Tacoma doesn’t have an airport to manage, but it has its own portfolio of self-inflicted predicaments to deal with. Just this week the Port of Tacoma unhappily found itself the owner and manager, again, of a problem property it thought it had disposed of, the 745-acre Maytown site that it has spent millions of dollars on.

For incumbent and would-be candidates of both ports, the questions continue: When you speak of “regional cooperation” and eliminating competition between the two, are you talking about price fixing? What good is regional cooperation going to be if the Canadian ports (Vancouver and Prince Rupert) can offer better rates and faster rail connections to your target markets? (Officials of both ports and within the industry see the ports to the north as the bigger competitive threat than the Panama Canal widening.) How are you going to handle ever-greater demands on rail capacity connecting the Pacific Northwest with the rest of the country? Is there enough worldwide shipping volume to support continued investment in both ports? Never mind management consolidation and cooperation, what about contraction?

And just so we don’t lose sight of that all-important question: When are you guys going to get off my property-tax bill?

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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