Vancouver port budget OK’d; oil plan draws fire

2015 plan does not include property tax increase

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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The Port of Vancouver will head into 2015 anticipating higher operating revenue from a new initiative: a lease deal to move agricultural products from North Dakota to Vancouver on rail cars that would otherwise run empty. Meanwhile, the port will take no increase in its property tax as part of its budget for next year.

But before port commissioners Nancy Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe approved those and other budget matters Tuesday, they came under fire for leaving the public out of discussions about an oil terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies.

“It really is disgusting,” said Don Orange, owner of Hoesly Eco Automotive in Vancouver. He was joined by other opponents of the oil terminal who spoke during the open forum portion of Tuesday’s public meeting. Among the critics was former Vancouver mayor Royce Pollard. Neither commissioners nor port staff responded to the criticism.

The barbs were based on a story published by The Columbian earlier this month. . The story revealed that the port apparently violated the state’s open public meetings law when commissioners held a private meeting on April 9, 2013. The stated purpose of that closed-door meeting: to discuss a minimum price for land the port would sell or lease for the oil terminal, a legally acceptable reason for a closed session. In reality, commissioners received a pitch from Tesoro and Savage executives about Tesoro’s “high-performing culture” and “safety and reliability,” Savage’s focus on “giving back to the community,” and a wide range of other topics that filled a 51-page slide presentation.

The meeting occurred about two weeks before Tesoro, a petroleum refiner, and Savage, a transportation company, publicly announced their proposed joint venture to develop the Northwest’s largest oil transfer terminal at the port.

Orange took umbrage with statements Wolfe made to The Columbian about the port’s April 9, 2013, closed meeting. Those statements included the commissioner’s remark that if the port’s legal counsel, Lisa Lowe, who attended the executive session that day, had thought the meeting “was inappropriate, she would have said so.”

Orange said that Wolfe, as an attorney with many years of experience providing legal advice to the cities of Battle Ground and Ridgefield, should be “teaching classes on following the rules” of the state’s open public meetings law and acting as a “mentor to your legal counsel.” Pollard, Vancouver’s former mayor, also blasted Wolfe, saying the commissioner belongs to “one of the most prestigious law firms” in the area. “It’s embarrassing,” Pollard said.

As to the port’s 2015 financial plan, commissioners adopted an overall budget that anticipates $98.79 million in revenue from all sources, including taxes, grants and property sales. The port will take no increase in its property tax, which raises $9.98 million each year. The overall budget is the largest in the port’s history.

The port expects $56.81 million in revenue from operations. That compares with roughly $34 million expected in the current fiscal year. Most of the projected increase is expected to come from a new initiative called “dedicated rail service,” in which the port will lease rail cars that would otherwise return to the port empty to transport agricultural products from North Dakota to Vancouver.