A Letter To The Port Commission re. 2020 Tax Levy

Per my public comment of 12 November.

When it comes to the Port’s relationship with the airport communities, the elephant in the room has always been EXTERNALITIES–the very real impacts on our people and property that go unacknowledged on your financial reports. So long as an Externality exists, there is no accurate accounting and there is no fairness.

By definition an Externality is getting something for nothing. It is as simple as not having to pay for your trash. We all have to pay Recology or Waste Management a modest fee to haul away our relatively modest amounts of trash. But you and your clients pay nothing for the enormous quantities of noise and pollution you dump on our communities.

I think we can agree that the individual amount assessed to each homeowner in Des Moines is pretty small. But that is not the point. The point is that you use most of the Tax Levy to make your grand projects cheaper for you and then a much smaller portion to fund various non-specific ‘do-gooder’ projects  such as the ACE and SKC Funds.

In the former case, you have always presented a ‘Greater Good’ argument, with lots of charts and graphs to try to explain to Airport Community residents how our sacrifices benefit ‘all of King County’. And that somehow those broader benefits redound to us specifically in the form of local jobs and other economic benefits. When that argument has not been well-received, you often chalk that up to your failure to explain it well. As you said at the last Port Meeting, it’s all very complicated and you (the Port) humbly bear the responsibility of making things more comprehensible–because in the end, you have a great story to tell.

First of all, your argument is factually untrue. You know it’s factually untrue and yet you keep making it year after year. The Port no longer provides a significant number of direct, family-wage jobs for Des Moines (or most of the other Airport Communities). The secondary and tertiary jobs in support industries now number only in the hundreds. You are hearkening back to the glory days when thousands of Boeing and Alaska people lived and worked in Des Moines.  Those are powerful echos, but those days are looooong gone. Even the big construction projects (like the FAA building in Des Moines) mostly involve workers who do not live in our community. Those projects provide a one-time slug of cash for the Cities, but no lasting big revenue streams. They are non-specific benefits, that are few and far between–rather like playing a casino game which is just tantalizing enough to keep the communities angling for more year after year.

And in the latter case, again,  grants such as ACE and SKCF are non-specific. They are token dollar amounts that never get to addressing the core issues of noise, pollution and socio-economic impacts from the airplanes. While they provide some benefit for the Airport Communities, what they mostly do is provide PR benefit for the Port. The rest of King County can go to your web site or hear Perry Cooper on local TV talking about yet another way the Port is ‘helping the community’.

And parenthetically, at the risk of sounding snippy, the whole notion of ‘explaining’ is very patronising. Despite what you may think, we totally get it. No matter how you explain things, the ‘Greater Good’ argument no longer sells for communities like Des Moines. We are no longer interested in that narrative or any substitute for real compensation. We simply want you to pay for your trash clean-up–as you should have been doing all along. That is a very clear and direct message we need you to hear once and for all.

For a corporation, if something does not appear on the balance sheet, it literally does not exist. That is your model of reality. Since you are not required to expense your noise and pollution, since it is not considered a liability of any kind, you just ignore it year after year. That has to stop. Because whether or not it is legal to ignore these Externalities, it is not reality. Those impacts do exist in the real world. And I know you can go beyond your current stance because you have done better in the past. Much better.

When noise mitigation programs were first introduced in the late ’70’s, the Port Of Seattle was the innovator. But after the Third Runway, you stopped and became entrenched in doing only the letter of the law. You now only do the absolute minimum required by formal constructs like the SAMP and ANCA Noise Mitigation.  That is simply not worthy of an institution which prides itself in being on the cutting-edge in combating climate change and social injustice.

What the Airport Communities deserve is an ongoing royalty from your airport revenues, which is dedicated to solving the problems of airplane noise and emissions. A one percent payment per year, paid to a fund jointly managed by the Airport Communities, would give us the money we need to protect ourselves. It would also make the Port’s life a lot easier.

Rather than constant tension, lengthy litigation and one-time ‘fixes’, we should have a modest, but stable revenue source so that we can plan how best to help our region. As it stands now we are constantly dependent on a plethora of agencies for assistance on even the most basic items such as data collection. This also benefits the Port since it would take away all the management and logistical headaches you now endure. We can manage our own noise monitors, our own pollution monitors, our own sound mitigation programs. We don’t need you to take out the trash. We just need you to pay for the service.

Commissioner Calkins tried to shift the discussion to increasing the Passenger Facility Charge to  $8.50. If I’m not completely mistaken, PFCs are not fungible. They are limited to specific noise mitigation programs. But if you can somehow use accounting alchemy to turn those airport funds into monies that can be used for a wider-range of Airport Community benefits, why can’t that be happening now?

As to a more realistic and immediate source of this revenue? Frankly, we don’t care how you get it. But I would suggest that it needs to come from existing revenues rather than to try and manufacture new sources.  I put up a figure of one percent of airport revenues. It should not be a great hardship to (cough) ‘donate’ one percent of your airport revenues to compensate Airport Communities for expenses for which neither you nor the airlines have ever had to account. Surely a one percent ‘utility tax’ is not onerous given the tremendous greater good that everyone in King County obtains from Sea-Tac Airport. (See what I just did there? Doesn’t feel great, does it.)

If you come back with, “we need every dime of that for our other CIPs!” My reply is: you’ve been getting something for nothing long enough. Everyone can learn to deal with a one percent belt-tightening–especially an organisation as prosperous as the Port Of Seattle. And especially if you amortize that cost to include the decades where neither you or the airlines paid anything for noise and pollution.

You know what I’m saying is true. The Port and the airlines owe the Airport Communities for the noise and pollution clean-up, just as any homeowner is required to pay for their own waste removal. However because the FAA decided in 1990 that all that waste is simply an Externality, you get to completely ignore it. But you’re better than that. You’ve demonstrated as much with many past innovations in noise mitigation and other forms of pollution reduction and social justice. We just need to get back to that place where the Port Of Seattle once again leads. And in this case, leadership means finally acknowledging that these impacts exist. Put a price of one percent on noise and pollution. Get those impacts on the balance sheet. Then you will empower the Airport Communities to (finally) be able to help themselves, improve the health and well-being of their residents, and at last have some kind of peace with the Port Of Seattle.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *