Port Most Ingenious In Public Spending

Maybe it's the salt air. Or just the heady wine of public funds. But when it comes to spending tax money, no one has the imaginative touch of the Port of Seattle.

Perhaps the most creative expenditure was the port's $36,700 public memorial at Sea-Tac airport to honor "fallen" police and firefighters.

The memorial was dedicated the other day, but already seems a bit forgotten. I found it only after a police officer directed me to a "mound of grass" on Air Cargo Road, north of the terminal.

There I came upon a raised, landscaped area next to a flag pole, surrounded by Beauty Bark and a dozen saplings. Embedded atop the mound was a brass plate and granite ring, etched with the names of four "fallen" public servants - two port cops, two port firefighters.

All, it turned out, had fallen not from gunfire, or from ladders, but from heart attacks.

It's the port's unique concept that, though they may not have fallen in the line of duty, the men nonetheless worked stressful jobs and therefore deserved recognition.

Obviously, that raises the specter of the port building stress memorials to "fallen" traffic controllers, baggage-complaint handlers or Hare Krishna victims.

The port does point out that one of the honored officers, Ronald Parker, actually did die on duty, even if it was in the locker room.

You may remember Parker - if you remember Steve Titus. Due mainly to Parker's detective work, Titus was wrongly convicted of rape ten years ago.

Later freed, Titus brought a lawsuit that was finally settled out of court. But by then, he had died - of stress.

Ironically, he and Parker are buried within view of the new memorial, in nearby Washington Memorial Cemetery.

But it is only Parker who is publicly honored, thanks to your tax dollars.

Oh well. As they say around the port, everyone makes mistakes - but sometimes they do build monuments to them.

Then there was the inspired approach of giving a raise to the port's chief executive based on a comparison of what executives elsewhere did not make.

This occurred when the port staff - in a year when net earnings were projected to drop - recommended that taxpayers contribute another 14 per cent a year to Zeger van Asch van Wijck's base pay of $131,124.

That comes to an additional $18,376 per annum, or about $3,600 for each of his names.

The increase, the staff said, was based on its survey of what other U.S. port chiefs were earning.

It turned out the survey used inaccurate and inflated figures. But commissioners approved the bump anyway.

In the port's unique way, it made sense. The chief's base salary doesn't reflect the 10 percent more he gets if the Consumer Price Index rises the same amount. Nor does it include, among other perks, an expense account and free car.

When those are added in, his pay becomes inflated, too. As a result, his salary now matches the inflated salaries his raise was errantly based on. So it evens out.

As they say around the port, one wrong turn always deserves another.

Then there was the creative fiscal endeavor called "add-on allowance." It gave another 3 percent increase to top officials based on "job-related expenses" - which they never had to report (or, for that matter, incur).

It was called an "add-on allowance" because the money was simply "added on" to their salaries like, say, an addition is "added on" to their house or a new power boat is "added on" to their dock. Free, of course.

Some commissioners felt this was wrong, too, and, 14 years later, had it quickly eliminated.

But as they say around the port, two wrongs made a right-nice paycheck.

Rick Anderson's column appears Saturday on Page A 2 and on Tuesday and Thursday in the City edition of The Times.