There's three classes of people who will be most affected by the near-certain fact that the Samoa pulp mill won't be open for business until 2011, at bare minimum. Moving down the list, those classes are as follows.
Number one: employees. Richard Marks -- pulp worker, labor organizer and one-time Fourth District Supervisorial candidate -- told the Times-Standard recently that his colleagues have given up hope, many of them simply moving out of the area to look for work. (Note: Marks' blog, Samoa Softball, is your number one source for on-the-ground news from this front. It's at samoasoftball.blogspot.com).
Number two: residential water customers who live inside the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which serves Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and much of the surrounding area. The shuttering of the mill leaves the district without its largest customer; district board member Bruce Rupp confirmed Tuesday that it has already planned on both cutbacks and raised bills for municipal services, which will certainly be passed on to end users. D-Day for the district is April 30, when payments from the mill are expected to stop.
Number three: the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. For the last nine years, the pulp mill has been just about the only standing customer for the district's deep water port services. Those services were reintroduced in 2000, following an expensive Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen the shipping channels into and around Humboldt Bay. The pulp mill's use of those services hasn't paid for them -- far from it -- but they have allowed the district to keep alive its ever-hazier dreams of instituting Humboldt Bay as a significant port of call in international trade.
Now, it would seem that the dream would or should be vanquished. The Bay District, which is currently readying its budget for next year, has on its books at least three expensive positions related to shipping trade, in addition to other associated costs. It pays two ship pilots a base salary of $140,000 per year each. Those pilots now have absolutely nothing to do for the next year and a half, at least. It pays a director of maritime commerce a base salary of $100,000 per year. When taxes, insurance and other costs are taken into account, those three positions alone amount to at least a half a million dollars per year. The district, by its own admission, has no hope of balancing its budget this year. It will again have to dip into its dwindling reserves, which currently stand at $3.5 million. The dip this year will be deeper than most.
So, given the general state of the economy, the lack of any railroad connection out of Humboldt County anytime in the foreseeable future (see last week's "Town Dandy") and the specific failure of the district's only shipping customer, it might be time for a rethink, no?
"We haven't seen anything in this year to signal that we should not continue down the path we've been on, which is to continue to redevelop this port and make better use of our coastal dependent industrial land," Bay District CEO Dave Hull told the Journal Tuesday. In other words: The budget he will present to his board next week will present absolutely no deviation from the district's longstanding plans. Which, by all objective evidence, seem to be just about as completely shot as it is possible to be.
It's hard to be too mean to someone as nice as Hull, so let's give him his due. He said he believes that trade is coming back. The railroad authority stated in no uncertain terms that the restoration of service between Humboldt Bay and the Bay Area is off the table for the foreseeable future -- but what if that future comes more quickly than we imagine? Also, there's other possibilities. District commerce director Wilson Lacy is currently off in Florida attending a cruise ship convention, Hull said. Maybe we can get some cruise ships.
In any case, why let yourself be guided by the facts as they happen to exist today? "That's that short-term vision," Hull said. "And that's not at all appropriate for a public agency to do. [We have] a long-term, hopefully forever-ish kind of commitment."
One can admire Hull's passion without endorsing his wisdom. And the same goes for the rest of the rather small collection of people who seem certain that the single, absolutely only way forward for Humboldt County lies in their fading memories of burly men in suspenders and blue pinstripes shifting stuff hither and yon. It's a vision that seems certain to bankrupt us long before it pays dividend one. And yet it is policy. Go figure.