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Thursday, October 26, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spending, Growth, Runway Are Main Issues In Port Races -- Two Seats Open; One Challenger Criticizes Campaign Financing

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Population growth, taxes, airport expansion and even the Mariners figure into the race for two seats on the Port of Seattle Commission.

Unlike the Mariners' run at the American League pennant, however, the Port race hasn't caught fire. That's not so surprising; the public rarely shows much interest in the Port, though 1993 was an exception. Then, fury over a proposed third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport prompted 10 people to take on incumbent Paige Miller in an unsuccessful bid to oust her from office.

The airport controversy is still alive, with commissioners scheduled to vote on expansion next spring. But citizens groups like the Regional Commission on Airport Affairs have turned to strategies other than running for Port office to fight the third runway.

After a low-key, three-way primary race, current Port Commission President Paul Schell, 58, faces an opponent - Ron Newenhof, 46, a Port warehouseman - who is not doing much campaigning.

Incumbent Gary Grant, 61, who polled less than 50 percent in his three-way primary race, faces a more active challenger, Bill Elder, 48, a management consultant from Issaquah.

Elder has been critical of the Port's spending record and the campaign contributions Grant has received from people who do business with the Port. Elder says there is nothing illegal about taking such contributions but says it's a question of ethics.

Campaign-finance reports show that both Grant and Schell have received money from shipping companies, airlines, contractors and others with Port connections. Among them are Alaska Airlines, American President Lines, chief beneficiary of the $267 million container-terminal expansion at Terminal 5; and Columbia Resource Group, recent recipient of a six-year contract to manage the Port's international conference center that opens next summer on Pier 66.

Grant, who expects to raise $40,000, said it is not unethical to accept contributions from Port customers because commissioners do not negotiate contracts or leases. He said most of his campaign money comes from friends, relatives and political associates stemming from his time as a legislator and King County Council member.

Elder has raised about $4,500 and has contributed $25,000 to his own campaign. Active in Eastside growth-management issues, he has criticized the amount of consulting work and lobbying Grant has done for King County developers since leaving the County Council in 1989. The semi-retired Grant, who expects to gross $15,000 to $20,000 from consulting this year, said that work has nothing to do with Port business.

Even Elder applauds the Port's renewed focus on efficiency, something the Port got low marks on in several studies. The commission has taken steps to drop some money-losing operations in order to strengthen its marine division. Marine and aviation business is steadily growing, and container traffic is expected to rise sharply when the Terminal 5 expansion is completed in 1997.

The Port projects operating revenues for 1995 of $198 million, with a $1.2 million profit even before its subsidy from county taxpayers. The Port's property-tax levy, down to 29 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation from 44 cents in 1990, brings in nearly $36 million a year.

Schell and Grant say they expect the levy to shrink further as Port operating revenues grow. But they reject one of Elder's campaign proposals, that the levy is no longer needed and should be phased out.

Schell said the Port needs money from the levy for activities, such as Fishermen's Terminal, that don't make money but mean jobs and tax revenue to the community.

Grant said levy money goes for such projects as development of the central waterfront and container-terminal expansions to keep the Port from losing business to other West Coast ports. "To say you can do with no levy is irresponsible," he said.

Elder doesn't reject such improvements but says major Port projects should be subject to voter referendum before money is spent. And if the Port won't cut the levy, he says, it should use the tax subsidy to form an industrial development district, or jointly contract with the county to finance a new Mariners stadium.

Both Schell and Grant say there's no other option to Sea-Tac expansion, given the region's growing air-capacity pressures. For Schell, the long-term solution is in high-speed rail linked to other major airports along the Interstate 5 corridor and in military installations that may become available, such as McChord Air Force Base.

Elder and Newenhof oppose a third runway at Sea-Tac. Elder has linked airport expansion to a broader theme, that the Port's decisions are made strictly to promote business without close examination of the impact on people and the environment.

Port commissioners serve four-year terms and earn $6,000 a year, plus up to another $6,000 a year for meetings. Grant and Schell received a "very good" rating from the Municipal League. Elder was rated "good." Newenhof was rated "poor."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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