County officials oppose fee waiver

4 elected leaders say cutting traffic, permit costs too risky

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Four Clark County elected officials say they are dubious of Clark County commissioners' proposed plan to expand cuts to county development fees.

Republican Auditor Greg Kimsey, Democratic Treasurer Doug Lasher and Republican Assessor Peter Van Nortwick each expressed concerns at Wednesday's board time meeting with commissioners.

John Fairgrieve, chief deputy to Democratic Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, also spoke of concerns his office has in the matter.

Commissioners are preparing to consider a plan to reduce several development fees for business developments as long as the county's unemployment rate was above the state's level, where it has been since 2000.

The plan is a major part of first-term Republican Commissioner David Madore's campaign promise to "open the floodgates" of jobs in Clark County.

The basics of the plan are to remove traffic impact and permit fees for non-residential county developments so long as Clark County lags behind the state average in jobs. But nothing in the plan is yet concrete as the plan moves to public hearing on June 11, and all three commissioners have made it clear they intend to introduce amendments to the proposal at that time.

Still, other elected officials say they have concerns over even the basics of such a plan.

The three elected officials who spoke to commissioners, along with Fairgrieve, each said they were concerned with the impact such a move would have to the county's budget.

Fairgrieve said Golik had expressed concern that the plan will "result in a deficit situation," when it comes to future budgeting. He added that the budgeting process is already in an austere state.

Lasher asked how many jobs the county expects to be created because of the plan. When Madore said he was unsure, Lasher stated it appeared there remained "a lot of hypotheticals."

Kimsey then said a model being worked up by the county's budget office was based on how many jobs would need to be created to sustain the plan.

"It was simply a mathematical exercise that said, 'How many jobs do we have to create … to, in effect, pay off this fee waiver?'" Kimsey said.

The bottom line, Madore said, is that the county doesn't know how many jobs the plan will create.

Madore said the fee waiver will work as type of experiment and give the commissioners data with which to consider the success of the program. He also said that if the experiment fails, they would likely remove the waiver at a future date, a plan Mielke agreed with.

"If we end up five, six, seven, eight, 10 months, whatever down the road, we'll be watching this, and we'll be able to gauge all along if we're succeeding or we're not succeeding," Madore said. "And we can change that. We can say 'Well, I guess the experiment failed, we can stop that,' or, 'This is a very successful venture,' and all the other counties in the state will want to know, 'How did you turn Clark County around?'"

Mielke also defended the plan, calling the move "a carrot" to bring out folks in the county who wished to start a business but were short of startup cash.

Still, the elected officials expressed further trepidation over the plan.

Van Nortwick said he was worried of the county's image if it reduces fees to nothing.

"I'm kind of concerned with what kind of a message we're looking to send," Van Nortwick said.

"I guess what I'm saying is, when you go and put your prices at zero, the kind of message you are sending out there (is) you don't truly believe in your product," Van Nortwick said. "Typically, when you are out in the market, you don't set your price down to zero unless you don't have a good product."

Van Nortwick said those looking for low costs would be looking for "South Dakota or Mississippi" rather than Clark County, and he worried the message implied the county would no longer invest in infrastructure for the county.

Madore said the county will continue to be able to invest in its roads and other infrastructure based on an increased tax base if the plan is successful. He also said traffic impact fees will not be waived for residential developments.

That prompted Kimsey to pepper the commissioners with questions on what success looks like, what information would be used in the measurement, and how many jobs would need to be created to mark success.

After commissioners said they would still need to work up a way to measure success, Kimsey expressed concern.

"I'm not hearing that it's really been very well thought out," he said to commissioners.

Kimsey previously came out against the plan at a May 7 meeting, saying he had seen no evidence to suggest the plan would benefit the county.

Kimsey said on Wednesday that beyond jobs, the commissioners need to consider revenues to the county.

"You have linked this resolution to the impact on the county, back to increased sales tax revenues," Kimsey said. "So, I would hope that a core part of your measure of success is going to be based on sales tax revenues coming to the county, and sales tax revenues coming to the county that are in excess of what the budget office … has currently forecasted going forward."

Van Nortwick also said the county should consider differentiating between created jobs and "jobs that would have come anyway."

Van Nortwick added that if the experiment fails, he believes commissioners must find a way to make cuts or they will simply shift the cost to another fund.

"If one person pays less, someone else is paying more to make up," Van Nortwick said. "It's always a matter of shifting who is paying. So unless there is an actual reduction in costs of Clark County government, reducing the fees is just shifting the fees on to some other fee payer or taxpayer."

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