Commissioners wrangle over chamber aid

Vote to stop dues to chambers of commerce prompts look at their roles

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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At the final Clark County commissioner meeting of 2013, board chair Steve Stuart asked his fellow commissioners to give a grace period to local chambers of commerce regarding the county's new policy to stop paying dues in 2014.

Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke voted in favor of halting dues to the local chambers over the summer, but the county didn't issue a letter of notice to the local economic groups until December.

The financial blow to the Vancouver, Camas, Woodland and Battle Ground chambers is considered small at a little more thn $5,000 total. But the move was met with anger and confusion, as it was announced so abruptly.

Stuart said he was hoping to give the chambers fair warning, not debate policy. But Madore and Mielke took the opportunity to reiterate the reasoning for the move.

Mielke repeated his stance that he proposed the cuts in the first place to save taxpayers money. To that end he said he didn't wish to further delay cutting the dues payments.

Meanwhile, before explaining his rationale, Madore defined a chamber of commerce as an organization that lobbies government.

"There are exceptions where government becomes or contributes to chambers of commerce, but those are normally the exceptions," Madore said. "What it really comes down to is, do we support business in our community, and absolutely we do. One of those ways we do that is — actually the way we do that, the primary way — is create the most business-friendly environment we can."

Madore then referenced his jobs-creation plan to eliminate development fees, a policy which he and Mielke passed earlier this year.

Madore claims development numbers show his program has been a wild success, while Stuart claims the only thing wild about the numbers is Madore's interpretation of them. The county budget department is slated to give an update on the matter in January in an attempt to properly frame that debate.

Other counties' budgets

Madore's claim that it is an "exception" that governments contribute to local chambers of commerce appears to potentially be incorrect.

After polling other similarly sized counties, The Columbian found that many governments contribute in some way to chambers of commerce or similar groups based on lobbying for economic developments.

Just to the north, in Cowlitz County, the county pays dues of $2,040 to the Kelso Longview Chamber of Commerce, while also paying minimal dues to chambers of its smaller cities.

Washington County in Oregon pays $200 annually to each of its 10 chambers.

Snohomish County doesn't have a regional chamber of commerce. Rather, the county contracts with Economic Alliance Snohomish County, an economic development council that provides similar services as a chamber but with more of a focus on lobbying and specifically targeted job creation.

Troy McClelland, president and CEO of the alliance, said the annual contract with the county is "around $50,000."

Earlier this year, Clark County stopped funding the Columbia River Economic Development Council after Madore pushed to halt payments because he didn't like that the group supported the Columbia River Crossing project. With a second from Mielke, the board broke its contract that promised a contribution of $200,000 over two years to the CREDC.

Meanwhile, in Spokane County — which has just about 35,000 more residents than Clark County — the county is keeping its chamber flush with cash in an effort to spur economic development.

In 2013, Spokane County contributed $222,500 to its regional chamber of commerce, Greater Spokane Incorporated.

In 2014, that contribution is slated to rise to $297,000.

"Our board and our (county executive) have traditionally been very supportive of economic development at the chamber," said county budget analyst Downs Paul. "The increase is to conduct an aerospace industry study in an effort to potentially bring those jobs to Spokane."

Paul also said the county pays membership dues to local chambers.

"Chambers are usually pretty high on our priority list," she said.

According to the Spokane County website, all three of the county commissioners voted in favor of the 2013 payment to the chamber. The three were also unanimous in an amendment to the contract that will fund the aerospace study.

On the board of commissioners in Spokane County is Todd Mielke, the nephew of Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke.

The younger Mielke is described as "a staunch fiscal conservative, a champion of small business, and a pragmatic leader" on the Spokane County website.

Clark County's Commissioner Mielke said his nephew has "always been a little more liberal than me," and stated that Spokane County simply has a higher cost of conducting government than Clark County is aiming for.

"The honest point here is that we need to be better stewards of taxpayers money," Mielke said. "And we really believe if people had a vote on these, they wouldn't pay the dues."

Mielke said the bottom line is to reduce the burden to the general fund, even though the smallest of contributions.

"We're looking into everything," Mielke said.