Clark County waives fees; jobs may develop

Commissioners pledge to track employment, services that lose funding

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Consider the floodgates open.

In another political victory for Clark County Commissioner David Madore, his plan to eliminate all traffic impact and permit fees for nonresidential development was approved Tuesday by a 2-1 vote of commissioners.

The move is a keystone in Madore's plan to crack "open the floodgates" of jobs, a campaign promise the first-term commissioner touted during his successful bid for election last year.

The plan expands on the county's previous fee holiday by removing job creation requirements for new businesses and eliminating all costs for retail developments.

Madore, a Republican, found support for his expanded fee holiday from fellow Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke.

While it is a projection — and Madore's hope is that new taxes from the influx of business will bridge the gap — the county estimates the general fund burden will increase by $4.8 million over the coming year-and-a-half because of the changes.

Madore has said for months he would like to keep the new fee waiver in place until unemployment numbers in Clark County drop below the state's level. Mielke made it clear Tuesday that commissioners will be monitoring the program closely.

Noting that he doesn't expect the new waiver to be perfect right out of the gate, Mielke introduced an amendment to the resolution that allows the board to immediately terminate the waiver if necessary.

"There's no such thing as a failure," Mielke said. "You might fumble along the way, but you still pick up and move until you reach that goal."

And while Madore has long likened the expanded waiver to an "experiment" worthy of looking at, Mielke described it as more like a roll of the dice in a dire economic time.

"This is unproved; it's a venture," Mielke said. "And I think that we're well justified in taking this gamble to step forward. We're able to do this because our staff … has saved millions of dollars by changing the way we do things. And we are still in the process of making savings."

Meanwhile, Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, voted against the resolution, saying the potential reward did not appear worth the risk.

"I'm not comfortable with the gamble right now," Stuart said.

Stuart later pointed to the projected impact of new waiver on the county's general fund as basis for his concern.

In an effort to limit that impact, Stuart introduced two amendments: One would limit the fee reduction for retail stores paying less than a median wage, and another would cap the amount waived for large projects.

Madore dismissed the amendments, saying that all jobs are of equal importance at this point.

And as Stuart and Madore debated the merits of the limitations the board's lone Democrat wished to see added, a pensive Mielke furrowed his brow and listened on.

After asking staff to crunch numbers, Mielke decided to stick with Madore and vote against Stuart's amendments, saying, "If you don't have a job, there's no such thing as a bad job."

Stuart did get Mielke to join with him in an amendment to keep the waiver from being offered to businesses simply relocating without increasing their workforce. And commissioners unanimously approved other amendments to keep monitoring job-creation numbers as the fee waiver moves forward.

Stuart said that while he was outvoted on the matter, he would continue to be "Jiminy Cricket" upon his fellow commissioners' shoulders, reminding them of critical services the county must continue to fund.

The expansive fee waiver has seen its share of foes in recent weeks. At a May 7 evening meeting of commissioners, the concept was met with wide dislike from the public. Other county elected officials, including Republicans, also told commissioners the plan seemed half-baked.

At Tuesday's meeting, 14 members of the public spoke on the matter, all against the proposed fee waiver.

But Madore stuck to his plan. And after the vote Tuesday, Madore said he believed the unemployment rate in the county is hovering around 20 percent.

"That's a crisis," Madore said. "And crisis demands we do something about it. … If anyone in this community finds a better way for us to do things better, to get our county back to work, to do something about it, please share it with us. Because we have to do what we can. Sure, we're talking about jobs, we're talking about economy; but we're talking about people."

And while Madore is all in, and Stuart is out, Mielke summed up the mixed feelings of the board of commissioners on the path ahead.

"I'm excited," Mielke said. "And a little shaky at the same time."

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com