County may link development fees, jobless rate

Plan would waive costs until unemployment below state average

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County Commissioner David Madore said he'd been "chewing" on the idea of linking fee reductions to unemployment numbers for a while.

On Wednesday morning, just before a commissioners' workshop meeting on traffic impact fees, Madore had county senior policy analyst Axel Swanson help him work out a rough draft of his plan to present to his fellow commissioners. And when the board agreed it was a good idea, Madore said he was thrilled.

"I was really pleased," Madore said. "It's one of those things where you know that elected officials don't like surprises, so you never know."

Madore's plan calls for a 100 percent fee reduction for all nonresidential, tax-generating development in specified county zones for as long as unemployment in Clark County remains at or above the state average — a situation a state economist said the county has been in since 2000.

Scott Bailey, a regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department, said the most accurate numbers he has for unemployment in the region are from January, when the county's unemployment rate sat at 11.4 percent and the state's was at 8.5 percent.

"I'm just looking at annual average, and it has been a while, but back in the year 2000 we were slightly below the state average," Bailey said.

The conversation began as a discussion on traffic impact fees, but commissioners began speaking on other development and permit fees as the talks progressed.

The way fees are waived now involves a determination if a new business development will create 10 jobs. In 2012, the county waived approximately $275,000 in development fees using that program.

A waiver of traffic impact fees based on the criteria began in May 2012, and between then and January the county waived $389,731 in traffic impact fees.

Under Madore's plan, the 10-job requirement would be removed in exchange for the unemployment rate requirement. And that, Madore says, will improve the opportunities for new business startups.

"For now, this helps us get out of our current crisis," Madore said. "We would remove the pain for job creators … the time frame for them to jump in there and start hiring people is very quick. It would take our vacancy rate down immediately."

The proposed plan would be offered to new construction, and new employers moving into currently vacant buildings.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said he liked the consideration for vacant buildings, as it was "ludicrous" to require new studies for fees such as traffic impact when an employer is trying to open shop in an existing location.

"There shouldn't have to be a new traffic study done just because someone moves in," Stuart said.

Commissioner Tom Mielke also said he liked the idea, and Stuart directed staff to draw up an official proposal that also determines the effects of such a move.

"I think if we were to move forward with a proposal like this that we'd have to do the devil in the details," Stuart said. "Make sure there aren't unforeseen consequences in this."

Madore agreed, and outlined a few questions he wants answered with his plan. Among them are cost impacts to the county's road fund and general fund, specifications on how the unemployment rate trigger will be determined and project completion times.

The commissioners also agreed this proposal serves only as a short-term solution to addressing how the county handles development fees. A long-term discussion to look at the entirety of the process is scheduled to occur this summer.

Marty Snell, director of community development, said he hopes to have a staff report and proposal on Madore's plan to commissioners within a few weeks, and expects a public hearing on the matter to occur sometime in late April.

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