City clarifies who pays for environmental studies
MONROE - A resident-initiated complaint to the state Auditor’s Office has prompted the city to clarify what was found by auditors to be a murky section of city code concerning who should pay for the cost of conducting an environmental impact statement, a study that can be expensive because of the technical review required.
The confusion is over when to charge a developer for the cost of preparing an environmental impact statement: when city staff prepares it or when an outside consultant prepares it. In two recent separate instances, the city didn’t charge developers for statements prepared by city staff.
“The issue seemed to be whether that (charge) would be for the cost of an outside consultant preparing the (study) or whether staff prepares it,” city planner Paul Popelka said.
The city historically charged for work done in association with a citizen-initiated rezone request. The city appears to be now advocating for not charging developers when city staff prepares impact statements.
The issue came up after it was revealed that the city did not charge Heritage Baptist Fellowship for an environmental impact statement for its controversial 50-acre rezone request, which was initiated by the church.
Public works director Brad Feilberg prepared the church’s impact statement and said because he is a city employee, his time was not charged to the applicant. (The city’s former hearing examiner later found the statement “profoundly lacking” in detail.
The City Council voted 4-2 last week to approve changes to the parts of code concerning fees. Councilwoman Patsy Cudaback and Councilman Jason Gamble were opposed to the changes. Councilman Kevin Hanford was absent.
Cudaback voted against the fee changes because it leaves the possibility that staff time wouldn’t be charged to developers.
“My concern with paying for a (a study) in-house is for staff time,” Cudaback said. “I can understand if we want to do that for development or to entice business because we provide this service, but there is a cost to it because it is staff time, there’s always a cost to staff time, there just is.”
Mayor Robert Zimmerman, offering a business perspective, claimed that potentially offering city staff time to cover the cost of an impact statement could be valuable.
“From a business perspective, I would venture to say that not in every case you charge your customers,” Zimmerman said at the Dec. 11 council meeting. “There is some value into considering potential that exists in future tax revenue, in employment, in opportunity.”
The city was “caught with its hand in the cookie jar,” former Councilman Mitch Ruth said about the need to clarify the code.
“It’s unfair to the taxpayers to expect that they would pay for the exploration of an idea that a private citizen has,” Ruth said. “That is the gifting of public funds. It’s just wrong.”
The other instance when the city didn’t charge a developer for an impact statement was for FirstAir Field’s land-use change request.
Feilberg said both studies were done without having to hire an outside consultant.
“There is no such thing as a typical (study),” Feilberg said.
State auditors found that in both cases the city acted in accordance with city code, but that it should be clarified so it’s clear when developers get charged.
Councilman Kurt Goering supported the fee changes and didn’t see a problem with staff covering the cost.
“Part of working at a city is you have to do this stuff,” Goering said. “It’s part of working. It feels like we’re kind of messing into what is staff’s job to do.”
Auditors have been in Monroe for weeks and were expected to complete their report this month. City officials said last week a report won’t be ready until after the first of the year.
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