The race for Port of Longview commissioner pits a young ex-military contractor calling for drastic change against a former longtime port employee with decades of experience on the waterfront.
Port Commissioner Doug Averett is defending his seat against Kent Preston, who has twice run unsuccessfully for the role.
Both candidates want to get rid of the port’s unpopular property tax, but they disagree about how quickly. While economic development is a priority for both, they have opposing views on whether the port should allow fossil fuel projects on its property.
And while Preston is critical of the port’s labor agreement with the longshoremen’s union, Averett sees it as vital to the port’s operations.
Both Averett and Preston were among nine applicants who competed to replace Commissioner Lou Johnson when he resigned in June 2015. Commissioners appointed Averett that August, shortly after he retired from a 28-year career in port operations.
“Obviously for someone to retire in April (2015) and come back as a commissioner in August — I’m either crazy or I’m dedicated to what happens at the port. And I’d like to think the later,” Averett quipped.
Averett said his experience means he can jump right into getting work done without needing time to get oriented.
“I know how the port works. Not that it’s a problem for someone new to come in, but there’s a huge learning curve,” he said.
Averett criticized Preston for not attending port meetings or campaign events. Although Preston has twice run for the position, he almost never attends meetings or workshops and he has little experience with the port.
Preston said he watches the meetings on KLTV and he’s been spending time with voters instead of campaign events. He said the port needs his fresh perspective, and he argues that his military experience running complex operations makes him qualified.
“I’ve done this kind of work in some of the most hostile places on the planet and in different languages, so I think it’s an easy transition going from doing really high-level military stuff with a broad coalition to down here (in Longview),” Preston said.
Unlike Averett, who has taken out political advertisements and has signs posted around the county, Preston hasn’t waged a traditional campaign and he has no formal endorsements and hasn’t done any campaign advertising.
Averett said he has been endorsed by local electrician’s union, the Longview-Kelso Building Trades Council and has a verbal, informal endorsement from the ILWU.
Taxes and dividends
If elected, Preston said one his first priorities would be to eliminate the port’s property tax as soon as possible. He also wants to give financial dividends back to the port constituents, in effect taking profits from the port and sending out checks to everyone who lives in the port district.
Preston’s isn’t quite sure what the dividend system would look like in practice, and he said the port would need to pay for its needs first. He argues that dividends would make residents more likely to get involved.
“Right now part of my district is Toutle and Castle Rock, a lot of people are like, ‘It’s the Port of Longview, I didn’t realize I had a stake in this.’ And that’s concerning to me. If people realize they have a stake in this, then they’ll get more involved and we can do things we need to do,” Preston said.
The port makes money primarily from charging companies fees to use the port’s docks and facilities or to lease riverfront property. That revenue pays for the ports operations, including its $38.6 million operating budget, running Willow Grove park, capital improvements and paying down debt.
Averett said Preston’s dividend idea is unrealistic.
“Unfortunately we’re not in a position to give back (money) at this point. We give back in other ways” – such as Willow Grove Park and the fact that one in 10 jobs locally are tied to port, Averett said.
Averett also disagrees with Preston’s approach to taxes. Although Averett eventually wants to see the property tax eliminated, he doesn’t think the port short should rush into it. He pointed to the commission last year cut the tax by 20 percent, which he said was more “prudent” than eliminating it all at once.
The port’s property tax levy is now 34 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, down from 43 cents in 2016. The owner of a $200,000 home pays $68 annually.
Barlow Point and fossil fuels
Averett said one of his top priorities is laying the groundwork for industrial development the ports 280-acre riverfront property at Barlow Point. The site needs millions of dollars in roads, water lines and other infrastructure before any company can build there.
For now, Averett said the best way the port can support Barlow Point development is to continue to back the project to redo the Industrial Way-Oregon Way rail and highway intersection. Trains moving cargo to Barlow Point would need to cross the intersection, which already is plagued with heavy traffic. The port has been heavily involved in planning for a multimillion project.
Averett said the port should be open to any commodity at Barlow Point as long as it complies with environmental rules. But Preston thinks the port should avoid fossil fuel projects.
“If we need to say, ‘We aren’t going to contribute to global warming any more, we aren’t going to contribute to the killing of the planet anymore,’ then we need to do that,” Preston said.
He thinks the best way for the port to attract businesses to Barlow Point would be to make it relatively cheap for companies to operate there with lower fees and flexible labor (i.e. not requiring companies to use union workers).
Preston wants to loosen the port’s ties to the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union and make it easier for other unions or contracted non-union labor to perform typical longshoremen tasks at the port.
“I have zero issue if ILWU wants work there — fantastic. But they shouldn’t have this exclusive monopoly on being able to work there. ... Their work needs to be competitive with everyone else,” Preston said.
Averett said Preston’s assessment misses the mark because port has a contract with the longshoremen and so do all of the stevedoring companies that use the port’s docks. Walking away from those contracts isn’t possible, he said.
“That worked well with EGT didn’t it?” said Averett, referring to the 2011 labor unrest when the ILWU clashed with EGT over jurisdiction. “(Preston) acts like he doesn’t understand the waterfront. The longshoremen have jurisdiction for cargo activity at public ports coastwide. … If he believes he can somehow (change that), he’s sadly mistaken.”
Averett criticized Preston for his lack of experience at the port, but Preston turned the critique around.
“Doug has never seen anything different. ... He’s done it a long time. Are the people of Cowlitz County better for him having worked there for 30 years? I think that’s what they need to look at,” Preston said.
Yet Averett said he’s willing to change when the circumstances call for it, and he notes many things at the port are working well, he said.
“Last year we had record volumes. We’re on track for record volumes this year. We’re successful,” Averett said.