Clark County commissioners clash on waivers

Fees would be waived for businesses that did not get a permit

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A Clark County program that waives development fees on nonhousing projects could be expanded to businesses that are not compliant with permitting regulations, despite vocal objections of one county commissioner.

At the direction of Republican Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke, the county's Community Development Department will investigate what actions could be taken to extend the fee cuts to businesses that never received permits from the county in the first place. The commissioners say such an amnesty initiative would encourage so-called "bad actors" to comply with county regulations.

"It may be a really good idea for us to send a message out there that whoever is operating businesses that have not gotten their permits, 'Come on in. Welcome to Clark County. We're business-friendly now. You win, because you're a legitimate business now,'" Madore said.

Throwing his support behind the idea, Mielke said the county could benefit from bringing businesses into compliance because it would save the county from sending code enforcement officers to noncompliant businesses.

But Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, who has opposed the fee waivers from day one, called the idea "corporate welfare," leaving taxpayers to foot the bill from lost fees.

"If you're waiving traffic and development fees for these bad actors, you're shifting the burden from the bad actors to the taxpayers," Stuart said.

Discussion of whether to extend the fee waivers to noncompliant businesses followed a board discussion Wednesday of how to move forward with the controversial program, introduced by Mielke and Madore in June.

Whether waiving fees is good for business or a tax burden waiting to happen is at the center of the controversy. The county plans to survey roughly 60 businesses that would benefit from the waivers to determine what sort of additional tax revenue the county could expect to receive, and how many jobs the new businesses would create.

That information could act as a barometer for whether the program will be a boon for job creation, as Mielke and Madore suggest, or a bust for the county's general fund.

Projections presented earlier in the month show a deficit of roughly $379,000 between the amount of waived fees and the potential future tax revenue. Still, the overall financial hit to the county's general fund is not as much as originally anticipated.

While Stuart said extending fee waivers to noncompliant businesses would "set a bad precedent," Madore countered, saying it would act as an incentive to make the county safer.

"The reason we have permits in the first place is to ensure safety," Madore said, "to ensure (businesses) comply."

Question quashed

Whether the fee waiver program can be successful is a question the county wants to answer in the coming months.

Comparing Clark County and its fee waiver program to other counties isn't an easy task. Most counties in Washington don't charge permitting and development fees. The more populous counties, such as Clark County, do charge them as a way of paying for street repairs and other infrastructure projects. But those counties typically don't waive the fees.

One thing the county's survey of businesses won't include is the question of whether the waived fees played a role in owner's decision to build. The suggestion for the question came from Stuart, who called it an important measure for success.

It wouldn't be the first time the county had asked that question. In 2011, two-thirds of surveyed business owners said a waiver made no difference in the timing or location of their projects.

Mielke argued that was a different situation, and that most of those businesses were already planning their projects when the fee holiday took effect.

Madore and Mielke squashed Stuart's idea, saying it would bring too much opinion into an otherwise objective survey.

A clearly frustrated Stuart said the county wasn't "asking for opinions," but rather trying to gauge whether the fee waivers were actually spurring economic development.

"If you don't want information, I can't help you," Stuart said. "You guys are so brutal -- you're hypocritical."