Port commissioners consider pay increase

Proposal would tie their compensation to port's financial performance

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The Port of Vancouver's elected commissioners would receive salary increases tied to the port's financial performance under a proposal to overhaul the amount they're paid for their work, which includes reviewing and approving leases, budgets and strategic plans, and overseeing the port's executive director.

Commissioners Nancy Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe will review the proposal and take public testimony on it during their regular public hearing, to be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the port's administrative building, 3103 N.W. Lower River Road, Vancouver.

Currently, a port commissioner receives a salary of $635 per month — or $7,620 annually — which is adjusted for inflation every five years. Under the proposed change, the adjustment for inflation would stand. However, a larger pay raise would be possible because it would be pegged to the port's level of operating revenue. If, for example, the port reaches revenue of $35 million to $50 million, commissioners could receive a pay bump from $635 per month to $800 per month, or $9,600 annually. If the level rose to $50 million to $70 million, pay would increase to $1,000 per month, or $12,000 annually.

The port anticipates operating revenue of $34.08 million for 2014, so a pay raise would not kick in yet under the proposed change.

The change in compensation structure — allowed under state law — would provide commissioners a financial incentive to sign off on lucrative lease deals. For example, the oil-handling facility proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies would bring in roughly $4.5 million annually to the port, or $45 million over the first 10 years of the lease.

Wolfe said Monday you can't avoid such a pay incentive when you tie salary to the port's financial performance. However, he said, "there's so much more" that drives the port's operating revenue than any one particular lease deal. Everything from the global economy to the availability of federal tax credits for wind energy production (the port handles wind energy components) can drive port operating revenue up or down, Wolfe said.

What's more, he said, the potential increase in pay "is so minimal that I can't see that that's a great incentive to do something that we otherwise might not want to do." Wolfe added that port commissioners are "still way behind" the pay of other local elected officials, including those on the Vancouver City Council.

'Pretty weighty'

Under the proposed pay structure, salary increases would be subject to other conditions. Increases would apply only to a re-elected commissioner or a new commissioner. And they would take effect at the beginning of the new term. For now, only Oliver, who is running unopposed for a second six-year term this year, would be eligible for a pay increase under the compensation proposal.

Additionally, a commissioner's salary would increase only after the level of operating revenue is confirmed by the Washington State Auditor's Office during its annual audit.

Port commissioners — charged with advancing economic development and creating jobs through trade and industrial growth — serve on a part-time basis, hold nonpartisan offices and serve six-year terms. They are not subject to term limits.

The current $7,620 annual salary of a port commissioner "is a barrier for many citizens to serve in this position," according to the proposed resolution that would implement the new salary structure. The current salary also does not fit "the breadth and complexity of the operations" of the port, "nor the substantial commitment of time and effort required to fulfill the duties of the office."

The resolution also says a "higher salary may encourage more citizens of Clark County to be candidates for election" to the port "since salary may be a consideration in an individual's decision to seek elective office."

The resolution also shows how commissioners would be paid at nine different levels of operating revenue. If, for example, the port's operating revenue fell below $25 million, commissioners' pay would drop to $250 per month, or $3,000 per year. If revenue reached $160 million to $200 million, commissioners' pay would rise to $2,800 per month, or $33,600 per year.

On top of their salaries, port commissioners receive $114 for each day they conduct port business. The port sets a maximum for the $114 per diem: no more than $13,680 per year. Commissioners also receive medical, dental and vision benefits.

Wolfe said ports statewide are similarly addressing what they pay their commissioners. He said the Port of Vancouver commissioners' responsibilities aren't "just to show up to two meetings a month." On the contrary, Wolfe said, commissioners review contracts and decide a total $86.38 million budget — which includes capital projects worth $54.12 million.

Those and other responsibilities are "pretty weighty, for not very much money," he said.