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Little rock, big problem?

Money collected through Columbia Countys tonnage fee adds up quick, but doesnt solve larger problems


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Trucks line up at Cornelius Pass Road on a return trip to St. Helens from the Intel construction site in Hillsboro. Columbia County is the only county in Oregon to charge a natural resources depletion fee which means companies such as Knife River must pay 15 cents per ton of material they are sending to Intel.They race down the highway, sometimes in long lines, sometimes singly: large trucks loaded with dirt and rock.

Lately, there have been even more on the road than usual, feeding the second phase of construction at Intel’s D1X research factory in Hillsboro and transporting thousands of tons of materials a day — rock from Columbia County to the site and fill dirt on the return trip.

Attached to every ton of rock in every truck there is a unique and sometimes problematic fee.

As far as Todd Dugdale, Columbia County’s land development director, can tell, Columbia County is the only county in Oregon that charges a natural resources depletion fee.

A 15 cents per-ton fee addresses any naturally occurring deposit — a broad term that includes soil, stone, clay, gravel, aggregate and other solid materials — extracted in the county and, as a transportation fee, what’s brought into the county for commercial construction or industrial use. The program brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The one hiccup? County officials say they can’t afford to employ a person to oversee the weight of the loaded trucks, so the program is, by and large, self-regulated, relying on reports made by the companies who are also doing the extracting and transporting.

“We’ve done audits, but only if there’s a red flag,” Dugdale said. Those audits occur if, for instance, a report hasn’t been made in a timely fashion — something which seems to happen every couple of years, he said. He thought for a minute and added, “We’re probably due for another round.”

Balancing act

Voters approved the Depletion Fee Ordinance in 1990. The ordinance originally established a 10 cents per-ton charge. It was amended in 1996 to charge the current 15 cents per-ton, with the additional 5 cents to be used by the Land Development Department to defray costs associated with administering the program. The remaining 10 cents went to the Road Department for road maintenance.

At this time, a 15 cents transportation fee was also added to the ordinance.

The ordinance has remained unchanged ever since despite two different proposals, the first in 2000 and the second in 2003, to increase the fees. The 2003 citizen initiative would have increased the fee to 85 cents and allocated a portion of the money to Animal Control and County Parks, but it was defeated.

Aggregate mining, the kind performed by large companies such as Knife River, is “by and far, the most prevalent, significant resource we have,” Dugdale said. And he remembers how they cast aside competitive differences and banded together in 2003 to wage a campaign against the proposed increase.

It is a balancing act, said Dugdale and Dave Hill, head of the county Roads Department.

On the one hand, unlike timber companies that can reforest logged areas, the mining companies are extracting a non-renewable resource. On the other hand, it’s important for the county that this resource is marketable and not prohibitively expensive for companies to use in construction and development, Dugdale said. In theory, the transportation fee added in 1996 levels the playing field by charging the same fee on incoming natural deposits.

Local rock haulers, too, benefit by not having cost-prohibitive fees eating into their bid potential on big projects such as D1X. Fewer costs keep them competitive and contribute to successful contracting and job creation, Dugdale and Hill pointed out.

Catch-22

Much of Land Development’s program administration work is now handled through Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Dugdale said. As a result, the majority of the five cents that would normally go to the county department is passed on to the Roads Department. In recent years, the Roads Department has collected more than $300,000 per year.

Hill estimates they will collect $383,613 this year. But the money from the depletion fee only represents about 10 percent of the Road Department’s budget, he said — a significant number, but not a main source of revenue.

Both Hill and Dugdale find themselves in a sort of Catch-22 situation. If they could pay someone to enforce the depletion and transportation fees, they might ensure companies are filing accurate reports and thus bring in more revenue. They might also catch more violators and ensure roads don’t suffer damage from overloaded trucks, cutting back on expensive repair costs.

But, then, maybe they would just be left footing the cost of an employee they can’t afford.

For the brief time they had a weigh master, several years past, “it worked out really well for us,” Hill said. “We just didn’t have the funding for it.”

But, he added, “The asphalt roads are really falling apart on us.”

One overloaded truck can tear up a county road in a single trip, Hill said. The fee helps shoulder the repair costs, but doesn’t completely solve the problem.

Routinely, usually around budget planning time, Dugdale will field phone calls from other counties. They are curious about the depletion fee, hoping to discover a new way to generate revenue for their own cash-strapped departments.

Dugdale will walk through the ordinance with them, explaining how Columbia County administers the program.

“None of them seem to be taking the plunge,” he said.