Port scrambles for new revenue

The Port of Astoria needs more money to repair its docks.

The Port of Astoria will likely receive a fraction of the money it tried to get from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm damage in 2015, throwing into jeopardy the agency’s plan for repairing a decaying central waterfront and leaving it to look for other sources of revenue.

FEMA has offered nearly $1.5 million to repair Port docks pummeled by high winds and rough waters in the storms. The Port at one point estimated more than $13 million in damage.

Other city and county agencies affected by the storms have completed repairs and received reimbursements, albeit in much smaller amounts.

The Port had hoped to leverage a $1.5 million state infrastructure grant it received to repair parts of Pier 2 as a local match for at least $6 million in federal funds, and vise versa, stretching the grants to pay for more repairs.

But FEMA has so far offered just under $1.5 million, including the nearly $368,000 in reimbursements the Port has received so far, said Matt McGrath, the Port’s director of operations.

The biggest hit has come on Pier 2, where the Port had sought $2.7 million for repairs but has so far been offered $8,000 for engineering by FEMA, McGrath said. Because much of the damage was to the pier’s rock and sheet pile walls under the cover of docks, the Port has not been able to show aerial photographs of the condition of the pier before and after the storms, he said.

Port staff has estimated about $20 million is needed to bring the docks up to proper working condition, including nearly $7 million for the seafood landing and processing dock on Pier 2 and $4 million to replace an ailing causeway at the East Mooring Basin, which is in danger of being shut down. The Port estimates at least $2.5 million annually for upkeep to the infrastructure, while the agency’s budget allows for about $1 million in maintenance, McGrath said.

Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, said FEMA’s decision was one of the last blows in the Port’s efforts to find the money to fix its infrastructure.

“I’m publicly begging for help,” Knight told the audience at a Port Commission meeting Tuesday. “Our infrastructure is failing. If we don’t do something, it will be lost.”

The Port on Tuesday opened the possibility of charging new fees on passing ships and seafood offloaded at its docks to raise more revenue. The idea is that seafood processors would be charged the fees and pass part of the cost on to fishermen.

Michael Haglund, a maritime attorney contracted by the Port to analyze its ability to charge the new fees, said the agency has broad authority to charge fees within its jurisdiction, which extends to the Washington state side of the Columbia River.

Kate Mickelson, head of the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association representing oceangoing vessels, said the group hopes the Port helps keep the region’s ports competitive.

Seafood processors and fishermen at the meeting Tuesday immediately came out against any new fees, calling them another hit the industry cannot afford and warning that fishermen could deliver to other ports to avoid the additional costs.

Rob Seitz, a commercial fisherman and co-owner of South Bay Wild Fish House in Astoria, delivers to Bornstein Seafoods. Any potential fees would hit him when he delivers to Bornstein and when he buys from the processor for his restaurant, he said.

Andrew Bornstein, part of the family ownership of Bornstein Seafoods, called the proposed fees a bait and switch. The processor, formerly located near downtown, was recruited to the central waterfront in the 2000s when the Port was planning a seafood and boatyard cluster that has since eroded.

The Port took out a $12 million loan to build a new plant that the company’s lease payments have now brought down to $7 million, Bornstein said.

“We never would have signed up for that loan if we knew this kind of conversation would happen,” Bornstein told the Port Commission.

The Bellingham, Washington-based company, with several locations along the coast, has already begun pulling back on investments planned in Astoria and is wondering whether it should extend local leases, Bornstein said.

“We own our building in Newport,” he said. “Maybe we need to put all our eggs in the Newport facility.”

Knight and Port commissioners lamented even having to consider new fees but said the Port does not gather much tax revenue and is running out of options to keep the agency’s docks operational.

Port Commissioner Dirk Rohne called for a multifaceted approach to get more money, from potential new fees and public-private development projects to selling off nonessential property.

“I’m not a proponent at this point of charging fishermen more fees, but if that were to be a conversation, then I think we have to say where the money is going in great specificity,” Rohne said.

The Port is not protecting its tenants by proposing new fees on seafood, said Port Commissioner Bill Hunsinger, a retired fisherman and longshoreman.

“We’re creating a hardship on the voters and taxpayers of Clatsop County,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I think fishermen are being singled out to take care of more fees, when they are only trying to help our tenants.”

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