At its regular meeting Tuesday, the Port of Astoria Commission voted to change its documented retirement policy to allow longtime employees to start collecting medical benefits earlier.

Interim Executive Director Ron Larsen said although the change invites higher costs to the Port, it is important to current employees who are getting ready to retire. In the past, he said, the Port has paid for the medical benefits of retired employees with 15 to 20 years of service from age 58 until Medicare kicks in at age 65.

However, the agency's collective bargaining agreement with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which instructs the Port's formal policy, stipulates retirees need to reach the age of 62 before the Port will cover their medical benefits.

Speaking from the audience on the night of her election to the commission, Kathy Sanders said she worried about the expense the Port would be incurring to make the change when other entities are cutting back on their benefits.

Medical benefits cost the Port roughly $400 per month per employee, according to Larsen, who said he wears "two hats" at the Port and believes the agency needs to support employees who have provided "faithful service" even though it means additional costs. He noted some employees have threatened legal action if they don't receive the benefits, and the legal expenses of not changing the policy could exceed the cost of the change.

Port counsel Heather Reynolds confirmed that the Port's past precedent of offering benefits to longtime employees retiring at age 58 would be a strong argument in court should current employees press charges.

Larsen said the Port is about to begin negotiations on the next collective bargaining agreement and will look into changing the age requirement for newer hires.

Also at the meeting, commissioners voted to enter agreements with Clatsop Cruise Hosts Inc. and Astoria Sunday Market for services they provide at Pier 1 during cruise ship calls.

The Port agreed to provide security and staff to the volunteers with Clatsop Cruise Hosts in exchange for volunteer training and $1 million in general liability insurance, which will be provided by the recently formed nonprofit corporation. The cruise hosts greet cruise passengers and provide ground transportation for touring the region.

The Sunday Market agreed to provide vendor training, $1 million in liability insurance, setup and removal of vendor areas and $100 rent for facilities in exchange for the Port's security, dock space during cruise calls and assistance when needed from Port staff.

Commissioner Larry Pfund requested a discussion on whether the Port should assess a fee on vendor income at the dock, seeing as the Port is providing vendors with "a captive audience on an expensive facility."

Commissioner Jim Bergeron said he had a similar thought until he learned how much most vendors actually make at the Pier 1 site. "If we start charging them, we might have people dropping out," he said.

Commissioners floated the idea of dividing the Port into subdistricts to ensure south county representation and changing the name of the Port to encompass more than just Astoria. They agreed to consider the idea at later meetings.

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