WOOING THE ELECTORATE

IN THE RECENT ELECTION, 69 percent of those casting ballots voted against creating a tax district for the Jacksonville Port Authority.

The tax district would have enabled the independent port authority to build the facilities needed to remain competitive with nearby government-supp orted ports - ports with the resources to fund expansion projects in hundreds of millions of dollars.The port authority wasn't asking for much, just a one-mill maximum property tax for a five-year period, at which time voters would have determined with their ballots the port's progress. According to port authority projections, the investment would have generated a return of $2.5 billion by the year 2005.

Not worth it, the voters determined Nov. 4. Right now, most apparently were unaware, the port is responsible for 35,000 jobs and contributes $1 billion each year to the area economy. The voters may regret their choice in the years ahead. There's little chance Jacksonville will get back into the race for the major containership services, and will have to settle for feeder port status. Other port cities have discovered this does not pack the economic

wallop of load center operations.

There's a lesson here for all public port authorities. It is the electorate that determines a port's future, either directly as in Jacksonville or indirectly through their legislative representatives. And the electorate doesn't understand the importance of their hometown ports, nor in many cases does it care.

The blame for that, of course, lies with the port industry and elected government officials. It does little good to preach to the converted at monthly civic luncheons. Nor does it do more to escort sixth-graders on port tours.

The ports should be reaching for the high school and college students who are or soon will be voting. The local newspapers and television stations should be told exactly what a port's functions are, how it performs those functions and how they affect the lives of the entire community - not just a handful of dockworkers and ship agents.

Port officials complain about the negatives portrayed in the local press, yet few take the time to show reporters stories to cover besides ship groundings. On the other hand, too many editors consider their local ports, when they consider them at all, as political entities rather than as sizable businesses. Legitimate business trips are portrayed as junkets. An official's momentary indiscretion makes headlines while the business and jobs brought to the community are ignored.

The value of media support was demonstrated in Miami where voters approved a $153.5 million bond issue to fund further expansion of the port. The Miami Herald came out firmly in support of the bond referendum, but it didn't waste space telling how bond revenues would fund container cranes and berths. It talked only about the cruise facilities to be built - something to which anyone can relate.

The bond referendum passed by a 3-2 margin on a day when other tax-related issues were rejected.

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