County denies new fees for conservation district

Agency may have to cut services after 4-1 vote by council

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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A local agency that assists landowners and farmers with conservation efforts faces an uncertain future and may reduce services after the Clark County council declined to approve new fees that would fund it.

The Clark County council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to not approve the new fees to benefit the Clark Conservation District. The district had sought to collect a new fee of $5 per parcel as well as another fee of 10 cents per acre. The fees would sunset after 10 years.

During the hearing, councilors noted the public support for the district and praised its services, but wanted more time to examine options.

“I have to see benefits for all the people that are going to be required to pay and I’m still struggling with that,” said Councilor Jeanne Stewart, who represents a large swath of the city of Vancouver.

The district currently relies on state and federal grants to fund it services, operations and pay three full-time staff. Its services are voluntary, not regulatory, and could include helping a farmer comply with regulations, obtain equipment, preserve soil or improve wildlife habitat.

District Manager Denise Smee told the council that grants are getting harder to come by and the district may have to reduce services without a revamp of its funding structure. Smee said the district has a 2017 budget of $350,000, much of which comes from restrictive grants. The revenue from the new fees, charged to 160,499 parcels and 61,605 acres, would generate an estimated $830,792 in 2018. She said the proceeds would be used to leverage grants 3-1.

“We believe the district has the opportunity to get the county back to that ethic and vision of working with landowners to help them take care of their land instead of putting more regulations on them,” she told the council.

Councilors heard more than an hour of public comment, mostly from local landowners who spoke highly of the district’s services and supported the new fees.

Lynn Engdahl, a retired rancher, told the council that after he moved to Clark County he was advised that the way he was piling manure was illegal. He said he called the district for help. He said the district responded by sending out a “nice young lady” who didn’t want to issue any fines but instead helped the ranch better manage its manure.

“I thought, my God, those are my kind of people,” said Engdahl, who now serves as an associate member of the district.

Milada Allen, the board president of the Felida Neighborhood Association, told the council that the district doesn’t just provide services for agricultural land but also land in suburban settings. She said that her association supports the new fees, which she likened to the cost of a latte.

Bill Zimmerman, the owner of Bi-Zi Farms and president of the Clark County Farm Bureau, called the district an important and “underutilized” conservation agency. He said that he previously served as chair of the district and he has seen it struggle with funding.

“This is about urban properties, it is residential properties,” he said. “There is a lot of good that the conservation district can do.”

Mark Clark, the executive director of the Washington State Conservation Commission, told the council that direct funding for conservation efforts has decreased in the state and the Clark Conservation District is well run despite its fiscal challenges.

He said Clark County has the third greatest number of farms in the state. He also said that counties including Spokane and Yakima have instituted fees to support their districts.

Under state law, once the district filed a proposed budget and system of fees with the county, the council was required to hold a public hearing on their adoption. The councilors had the option of adopting the fees (or modifying them) if they found the fees are in the public interest and imposing them wouldn’t exceed their benefit.

Council Chair Marc Boldt, a former farmer, noted that larger, more urban counties had adopted fees for their districts and he was the only councilor to support the proposal. He said that he hears frequently about the value of local foods and noted that local food requires local farms, which he said sometimes need help.

“Really, to do local food you have to manage your farm,” he said.

Councilor Eileen Quiring praised the district for its nonregulatory approach as well as how it uses volunteers and leverages funding for grants. But she said she didn’t expect the district to close its doors without the new fees.

Councilor Julie Olson said she appreciated the public support for the district at the hearing.

“We also represent those taxpayers that aren’t here today,” she said. Olson said there might be other funding sources for the district and suggested even holding a public vote on approving the fees.

Councilor John Blom noted that the new fees would generate over $8 million over 10 years. He said that money could be used for mental health, homeless services or sidewalks.

“The struggle, where I’m at, is how do we balance it with so many conflicting needs,” he said.

Boldt noted that even if the council approved the fees there wasn’t enough time to assess them next year. The council also seemed unsure about how to deal with tax-exempt property owned by churches and nonprofits. Olson also said there was not enough information about whether the cost of imposing the fees and handling their collection would outweigh the proceeds.

The council directed Interim County Manager Jim Rumpeltes to form a work group to look into the issue and report back by April.

After the meeting, Smee said that she gave the council detailed information in June of the district’s situation and was surprised they were going to give it further consideration. When asked what would happen to the district without the fees, Smee said she wasn’t sure.

“We’ll just try to continue with grants and other sources like we always do,” she said.