Cities tighten legislative push

With five weeks left in the session, focus is on priorities

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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As lawmakers march toward the end of the legislative session, Clark County's cities have stepped up efforts to voice their priorities at the Capitol.

City representatives say their principal concerns moving toward the session's end April 28 are: shoring up key revenue pots from the state and limiting new restrictions on cities' actions.

After bills not deemed essential to the budget were cut off earlier in the month, lobbyist Mark Brown said he's tracking a list of 49 remaining bills. Brown, who works for Vancouver, Ridgefield and Battle Ground, among others, said the bills either preempt local authority or ferry money away from important capital projects.

"We want to see a robust capital budget for cities," he said. "What we're seeing right now are a lot of projects in the queue for state funding."

Speculation abounds that with the state now facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall and a Supreme Court mandate to increase education spending, the Legislature is seeking ways to move money around -- and away from cities.

With the federal sequester further damming the way money trickles down to cities, local leaders are lobbying on their top issues:

Vehicle fuel

Cities hope to amend regulations requiring alternative fuel for publicly owned vehicles.

A 2007 law requires that all publicly owned vehicle fleets switch to alternative fuels -- biofuels or electricity -- by 2015. The bill was later amended to broaden the definition of alternative fuels, adding propane and compressed natural gas to the list of acceptable fuels.

Environmental groups said the bill would help the state meet its greenhouse gas emissions goals, setting a positive example in the process.

But cities and special districts balked at the bill, calling it an unfunded mandate that would force local governments to buy new fleets only a few years into the service life of their existing vehicles.

Senate Bill 5099, introduced this session by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, would restrict the scope of the alternative fuel regulations.

Fire trucks, police cars and other emergency response vehicles would be exempt from converting to alternative fuels.

The bill would also give cities discretion over replacing newer fleet vehicles.

• A view from the cities: Brown said the bill would eliminate some of the more costly and unrealistic requirements of the existing law.

"The costs are, perhaps, unprecedented," Brown told the House Environment Committee Wednesday. "This unfunded mandate -- 100 percent fleet conversion -- is probably, without exception, the single largest event in the history of this state. The costs are immense."

All together, Vancouver's fleet is worth an estimated $10 million. In Battle Ground, the city's 61 vehicles are worth $3.2 million; in Ridgefield, they're valued at $1 million.

Those figures don't take into account what it would cost to retrofit existing vehicles or buy more-expensive vehicles that run on alternative energy, proponents of the amended bill say.

Battle Ground City Manager John Williams said Clark County's smaller cities also don't have the infrastructure in place to support the mass conversion to alternative fuels.

"Any time a new technology comes out," Williams said, "it becomes more expensive to implement it."

• What's happening now: The Senate passed the bill Feb. 22. It passed out of the House Environment Committee on Thursday.

Loss of revenue

The state's budget shortfall could further strain its revenue-sharing programs.

A loss of liquor excise tax distributions has cost cities thousands of dollars since privatization went into effect last year.

City officials would like to see those reinstated.

But they also worry that the Legislature could tap other funds -- such as the Public Works Trust fund, which provides cities with low-interest loans -- to backfill the state budget.

"Without the trust fund, we would be sorely in trouble," said Steve Wall, public works director for Ridgefield.

• A view from the cities: Officials from cities say state programs that distribute money and loans are essential because they help pay for projects that wouldn't move forward otherwise.

Reinstating liquor revenue is a top priority in La Center, where lobbyist Jerry Smedes said the city had lost $30,000 from its general fund.

Elsewhere, city officials say they're even more concerned about the potential loss of low-interest loans used to pay for capital projects.

Wall, Ridgefield's public works director, points to the city's sewer expansion project.

The city received a $10 million loan from the Public Works Trust Fund in 2011 to help pay for a regional sewage trunk line and pump station that will connect the city to the Salmon Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, boosting capacity and making the city more attractive to prospective businesses along the Interstate 5 corridor.

• What's happening now: Cities say they'll know more about the future of the funds and loans when budget proposals are presented next month.

Development costs

A House bill would delay a city's ability to collect impact fees, which are levied on new projects to pay for city services.

Cities now typically collect the fees when building permits are issued.

Developers and contractors tend to back the bill because it would provide consistency in how impact fees are collected statewide -- with fees being collected only after tenants move in.

• A view from the cities: While developers say the bill would spur development, cities say it would preempt their ability to make local decisions.

Many Clark County cities already provide opportunities to defer impact fees; in Battle Ground, for instance, residential developers may enter into agreements to defer payments until tenants move in. This way, developers can earn interest on the fee money until they start making money from tenants.

Robert Maul, Battle Ground's community development director, said no developer has used the program, despite its being in place for a couple of years.

"It's not widely advertised," he said.

Cities worry the bill would limit decision-making at the local level and possibly cost taxpayers money.

If a developer runs out of money before a project is completed and walks away without paying fees, Maul said, the city is on the hook for the services it provided.

• What's happening now: The bill passed the House on March 6. It's scheduled for a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Government Operations on Thursday.


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.