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State should help with rebuilding fees

Legislative leaders recently asked lawmakers for suggestions on how to spend Oregon’s share of the American Rescue Plan, which is swelling state coffers by $2.6 billion. Here’s an obvious one: Help Jackson County and the cities of Talent and Phoenix provide fee waivers and faster processing for homeowners seeking to rebuild after the Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

Jackson County commissioners have asked the state for about $10 million to cover the cost of waiving planning and building fees, and to hire contract employees to handle the additional work of processing building applications. Talent and Phoenix will need help, too. About half the 2,500 homes lost in the Almeda fire were inside the two cities and half in the county. The Obenchain fire claimed an additional 30 homes.

Planning and building fees can cost more than $11,000 for a single-family home. And the fees pay the salaries of the planning and building staff who handle the permits.

Oregon is set to receive $2.6 billion. Legislative budget writers say they need $1.3 billion of that to cover existing programs and services, and will set aside $520 million for future budgets, The Oregonian reports.

That still leaves $780 million that is up for grabs.

There will be no shortage of ideas from legislators on how to spend those dollars. But Jackson County’s modest request for $10 million to ease the rebuilding process from the most devastating fire in state history ought to be near the top of the list. Jackson County suffered by far the worst losses in the fires that swept through numerous parts of the state on Sept. 8, accounting for more than half the 4,000 homes lost statewide.

The planning, building and community development fees help pay for the public services that supply new construction, and support city and county planning staff who process the applications. Homeowners who lost everything in the fires through no fault of their own shouldn’t have to pay fees they already paid when they purchased their home.

The county and the cities involved have lost property tax revenue as a result of the destruction. It’s not fair to ask them to shoulder the cost of waiving fees.

With housing in short supply and the construction industry struggling to meet the demand, anything that can be done to speed up permit approvals will shorten the time displaced residents have to wait before their homes and businesses are rebuilt. And that will hasten the recovery of the local economy as well.

The Legislature should grant the county’s request for help, and Talent and Phoenix should receive the assistance they need as well.