You might consider it cynical; we prefer skeptical. Either way, there are questions that must be answered about the efficacy of the county's fee-waiving program.
County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke voted last year to waive traffic impact fees and permits on commercial development. By the county's calculation, presented last week, $1.26 million in traffic fees have been waived since June, along with about $367,000 in permit fees. That adds up to an estimated $1.62 million the county has chosen to not collect. To counter that, according to Marty Snell, Clark County's community development director, officials anticipate receiving $1.25 million in extra revenue from the building projects over a five-year period — a deficit of about $370,000.
That's OK, according to Madore. The theory is that removing fees spurs development, increases employment, and strengthens the bottom line through property taxes and sales-tax revenue. "The great news is that business development in Clark County is outstanding and people are finding jobs right here at home," Madore said. "That is exactly what we are all working so hard to encourage."
Yet that is where the answers must be provided.
Madore's assertion is a case of posturing without proof, celebrating without cause. While Snell and Madore agree that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the fee holidays and new development, Madore is insisting the program is a success because, well, because he says it is.
That's not good enough. Madore's leadership thus far has been filled with theory and rhetoric and bluster when accountability is called for. If the county is to continue providing a fee holiday for developers, officials must be able to provide data to show that the program is working.
The fact is that new development requires infrastructure, which typically is paid for with traffic impact fees. Allowing developers to avoid such fees inevitably passes the cost along to taxpayers, because the costs cannot be avoided.
As The Columbian has editorialized in the past: "It's like a group enjoying a meal at a fancy restaurant, and then one member of the party doesn't pay their part of the bill. That leaves everybody else at the table to pick up their tab." In this case, the people not paying their fair share are the ones who can profit from the new development. Sticking taxpayers with the bill without proof that they are receiving benefits is inherently unfair.
Snell said: "We have to look very carefully at the traffic impact fees. These fees are significant, and they impact our return on investment."
Initially, county commissioners approved setting aside $1 million from the general fund to accommodate losses from the waived permit fees. While the necessary amount apparently will fall well short of that $1 million benchmark, that still is money coming from taxpayers.
Last June, in speaking against the plan, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey told commissioners, "You have linked this resolution to the impact on the county, back to increased sales-tax revenues. 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 that are in excess of what the budget office . . . has currently forecasted going forward."
In other words, whether it's sales taxes or property taxes or job growth, if Madore is going to trumpet the benefits of fee waivers, we need some proof of their effectiveness — not empty rhetoric. Until then, consider us skeptical.