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Columbia County should set its transportation fee in stone

by: Tyler Graf Trucking – A dump truck carrying material from Intel’s D1X Fab construction project in Hillsboro zips through a neighborhood on its way to Scappoose Sand & Gravel, which, like Highway 30, will see a steady stream of truck activity until June.

Columbia County's transportation fee system is confusing and, for the sake of consistency and fairness, should have clear policies written around it so county residents and businesses - both in and out of the county - understand how and when it is enforced.

The recent, highly visible presence of dump trucks originating from the Intel expansion in Hillsboro with full loads of excavated material destined to be used as reclamation fill at Scappoose Sand and Gravel's pit are a case in point. Under the written conditions of the transportation fee ordinance, Columbia County could - arguably should - be collecting a per-ton fee for the volume of natural resources being brought into the county.

This is true despite a December 2006 interpretation, made by the county commissioners, that material used for mine reclamation should be exempt from the fee. The interpretation, it is important to note, came after voters in 2000 and 2001 shot down initiatives to exempt mine reclamation material from the transportation fee.

While we agree it is environmentally and civically better for residents that Scappoose Sand and Gravel, which operates under a grandfather clause and would have a disincentive to reclaim the mine if it had to adhere to the transportation fee rules, reclaim its mine, the clumsy transportation fee and its ad-hoc interpretations of it are in need of an overhaul.

Columbia County voters in 1996 had approved a revised depletion fee so that the county's many mine operators would have to compensate the county for the loss of non-renewable natural resources, such as 'coal, clay, soil, stone, shale, sand, gravel, metallic ore, aggregate and any other solid material or substance' depleted from the county. Historically, collected depletion fee dollars have gone to the county's road department, which makes sense considering Columbia County's roads take the heaviest beating from the wear and tear of aggregate-laden dump trucks.

The 1996 ordinance also sought to fix the first 1990 depletion fee ordinance after some bugs in the original ordinance surfaced. For one, Columbia County mine operators had to tack an additional fee onto their bottom line. It was an expense miners elsewhere in the state were not subjected to - Columbia County is the only county with a depletion and transportation fee system in Oregon - and hence made Columbia County operations less competitive. The problem became manifest during construction of the Fred Meyer retail center in Scappoose. Out-of-county soil suppliers, so the story goes, were more competitive than in-county suppliers to provide fill for the new big-box construction, and ultimately got the contract over local suppliers.

As a fix, the depletion fee ordinance program was amended by a 1996 vote to establish the transportation fee. The amendment provided that out-of-county haulers of natural resources, the only exception being natural gas, would pay 15 cents per ton of material transported into the county. It also raised the depletion fee to 15 cents per ton.

But that's kind of where the story gets a little fuzzy, at least as it concerns enforcement of the transportation fee. The transportation fee has been a nightmare to enforce. County officials have rendered written interpretations, and have given verbal direction, for how it is to be implemented, directions that run counter to the voter-approved document.

Some transportation fee dollars, we're assured, are collected during Columbia County's permitting process for new construction. If a new development occurs, we're told, the contractor is asked where fill is originating. If it's from outside the county, the county collects its transportation fee. What is unclear if the same process is happening in the various cities, or if pass-through trucks hauling materials into the county are subject to the fee.

Bottom line: The transportation fee's many loose interpretations expose the county to potential allegations of unfairness and reflect unsophisticated rulemaking. It's time for county leaders to set the record straight on its transportation fee system and memorialize any such revisions in appropriate policy.