Lincoln County Port Authority: Port staff gets county officials up-to-speed with 400-acre site

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Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett, right, listens to Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority, at an informational meeting Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the Lincoln County Courthouse. Bennett and fellow commissioners Mark Peck and Mike Cole comprise three-fifths of the Port's new governing board, which still seeks applicants for two open positions. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

While county officials await the formation of the Lincoln County Port Authority’s new governing board, some of them sat with Port staff on Tuesday, Jan. 6 for what Commissioner Mike Cole described as an “informational start for us on how and where to proceed.”

The most pressing matters they addressed included the lack of strategy and the potential inability to renew some or all of the Port’s insurance come June.

The Port’s new governing board will comprise Cole and his fellow commissioners, Mark Peck and Jerry Bennett, as well as two yet-to-be-chosen citizens.

Until the full board is formed, the Commission has indicated it will not make any decisions regarding the Port Authority, which the county created in 2003 to develop the 400-acre site left vacant by the 2002 departure of Stimson Lumber Company.

Cole and Bennett attended Tuesday’s workshop alongside County Administrator Darren Coldwell and the Port Authority’s Executive Director Tina Oliphant and Operations Manager Brett McCully. Peck was absent due to a cold.

County employees Wendy Lacoss-Drake, Marc McCully and Brent Teske — who also is Libby’s mayor — and about a half dozen other people also attended.

McCully and Oliphant shared with the commission large white binders containing various items they deemed important: the Port’s founding resolution, legal and background documents, bylaws and the like.

“It’s housekeeping (material),” Oliphant said. “There’s nothing controversial here.”

They also handed out sheets of paper that provided a snapshot of the Port’s financial and operational aspects, including a list of current tenants, project funding and the most recent operating budget.

First discussed was the relationship between the Port Authority and the Kootenai River Development Council. The entities are entwined to an extent — Oliphant and McCully staff both, for example — but as Oliphant noted, KRDC’s nonprofit status gives it access “certain pools of funds” and has enabled it to help the county, the City of Libby and other local organizations and businesses get economic and community development grants.

Cole suggested that the governing board, once convened, would need to decide “how to operate these two very different entities,” the commingling of which Oliphant explained was not unusual in a rural area.

Oliphant also mentioned the pressing need to develop a strategy for the Port Authority.

“It’s missing,” she said. “That’s absolutely why we’re all sitting here.”

Another issue Oliphant said was pressing regards the marketing of the Port Authority, though she said they are in the process of developing a video and brochure with the hopes of gaining exposure.

McCully and Oliphant also gave status updates on a number of items, including the continued uncertainty of SK Fingerjoint’s plans following a devastating fire in November 2017 — the owners are awaiting an insurance ruling, they said — as well as a list of infrastructure issues and improvement plans and matters pertaining to both EPA Superfund sites affecting the Port Authority property.

One outstanding item Oliphant brought up was the roughly $142,000 still outstanding on a Big Sky Trust Fund grant awarded in 2009 to Stinger Welding that was contingent upon jobs creation. On May 24, 2017, the Commission granted the seventh and, it said, final extension to the grant, which, following Stinger Welding’s demise, had been expanded to include jobs created at other Port businesses — jobs that have yet to materialize.

Oliphant recommended paying off that balance, and reiterated an ongoing concern raised at an earlier meeting — what to do about outstanding taxes, fees and penalties associated with the Stinger Welding property, which is currently on the market.

“I suggest outstanding debts be addressed as quickly as possible,” Cole said. “(These are) pretty high on our list to get done.”

Oliphant also noted that Fisher Industries, owner of the Stinger Welding property, was in talks with a company that had expressed interest in the location.

One looming concern is Port Authority insurance, which is up for renewal in June. The fear, Oliphant said, is that “we are almost uninsurable right now.”

“If you’re trying to attract tenants and insurance is uncertain, it’s very messy,” she said.

Cole suggested insurance “should be No. 1” on the new governing board list of priorities.

“There are several No. 1s,” Commissioner Jerry Bennett responded.

County Administrator Darren Coldwell said one of his priorities is to provide McCully and Oliphant with job descriptions, performance expectations and other related items they’ve never formally been provided.

“It’s just a matter of sitting down with open and paper,” he said.

Other items McCully and Oliphant brought to the Commission’s attention included deficiencies in fire suppression capabilities, security concerns and two revolving loan funds the Port Authority oversees.

Regarding the latter, Oliphant said there were no issues to report with outstanding loans yet recommended the formation of a loan review board that is separate from the governing board to provide oversight and recommendations on how to disburse funds in the future.

Cole requested that a site tour be scheduled once the board is convened.

It’s not yet known when the new board will be in place. Applications for the two open positions are due 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16. Peck previously had encouraged any former board member to apply.

As of Thursday, Jan. 8, the county had received only two applications, said Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson, and those were from December 2017 when the former board sought to fill a vacancy.

The applicants are Paul Bunn and Charles McFarland, she said.

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