George Boardman: Nevada County stepping out of the box and into a quagmire? | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Nevada County stepping out of the box and into a quagmire?

George Boardman
Columnist

Perhaps I have been too harsh in my criticism of the county Board of Supervisors, particularly when it comes to the members' seeming disinterest in the economic development of the west county.

But a majority of the board led by Supervisor Dan Miller has apparently seen the light as they move to provide financial incentives for a bank branch construction project that is scheduled to be completed this fall.

Miller, here-to-fore more willing to observe than lead, is proposing the county:

Waive the easement abandonment fee on the site on the new branch of River Valley Community Bank on Brunswick Road, a saving to the developer of $1,214.07;

Pay the developer's Local Agency Formation Commission and state Board of Equalization fees, about $2,800;

Have the county remove over 5,700 square feet of pavement on Town Talk Road and add the land to the existing parcel at no cost to the developer, but a "soft" cost of $5,000 to taxpayers.

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At first glance, it's hard to see why the bank would need these incentives to create a second entrance to its new building. River Valley has been operating in the community since 2013 and broke ground on the new site last October. The 3,500-square-foot building at 580 Brunswick Road is scheduled to be completed this fall.

The bank isn't hurting financially. River Valley recently reported first-half earnings of $1,038,000, up from $711,000 in the year-earlier period. Assets have grown to $359.7 million, up from $321.6 million a year earlier. Changes in federal rules governing the operation of small banks and the Trump tax cut suggest there are even better times ahead.

Certainly, the bank needed no incentive to open an Auburn branch at the former site of the late, lamented Citizens Bank of Nevada County, which failed in 2011. The new branch location there requires minimum tenant improvement, according to the bank.

And it's not like River Valley is a big job creator. The bank, which has 34 employees, will need just four people to run its new Auburn branch. Nor will the bank generate the kind of traffic that would justify two entrances to the building. River Valley officials say they are not a big retail banking operation, catering instead to businesses and high net-worth individuals.

But Miller views the Grass Valley branch from another perspective. "It's really an unsafe intersection at Bubbling Wells and Town Talk Road going into Brunswick," he told his fellow supervisors. This conclusion is apparently based on anecdotal evidence, since Miller conceded, "We have no accident history at the intersection."

Then there's the precedent of waiving fees. While this doesn't exactly rival the $1 billion in incentives Nevada gave Tesla to build its battery plant in Sparks, it opens the door to future developers demanding special treatment.

"What we're looking at is unusual," Miller conceded. "The county doesn't have an official policy waiving fees, but the bank approached me and asked me because of the cost and the public benefit … if the county could waive fees and what would be considered a soft cost."

Bank CEO John Jelavich framed this as a good deal for taxpayers, saying the bank will foot the cost of over $90,000 to realign Town Talk. "There's no way that that intersection could have been corrected spending ($9,000)," he told The Union. "It's a no brainer."

But is this a "no brainer" for investors in the bank? If I were a stockholder, I'd wonder why the bank is spending so much money to create a second entrance to a business that won't generate much traffic anyway. The estimated cost for the realignment has more than doubled since work on the project began. How much is this really worth?

But I digress. Miller didn't say when River Valley officials approached him, but apparently they were expecting something when they broke ground at the site in October of last year. The Union reported at the time the bank "will also have access to a realigned Town Talk Road."

The building is almost complete, so why is Miller springing the issue on his colleagues now? More to the point, why wasn't this matter brought to the board before the June election? Miller barely beat Hilary Hodge in his reelection effort. You have to wonder how this proposed giveaway would have influenced the election if it surfaced in May.

Supervisor Hank Weston was concerned about creating a precedent and possibly a new policy for waiving fees, but decided the county could avoid the issue by casting the deal as a public-private partnership. "We take care of the $5,000, we give (the bank) $4,000 for a public-private partnership and they do whatever they want with it," he said.

When Supervisor Heidi Hall suggested that wouldn't solve the problem, Weston replied: "We don't care what they do. We just give them an amount, they deal with it." This is the same supervisor who got upset when county Clerk/Recorder Gregory Diaz couldn't give him a precise figure on what the all-mail June election would cost.

Weston backed Miller's proposal along with Supervisor Ed Scofield, who viewed his vote as a common sense decision. ""For 10 grand we take care of an issue," he said. "I'm going to vote yes."

Some people view this as payback for contributions to Miller's re-election campaign. While that may not be the case, it's easy to connect the dots in a small community like ours. Practically everybody involved in this project contributed money to his campaign, with the Nevada County Contractors Association leading the way.

The problem here is that the supervisors are creating an exception that may cause other developers — the Dollar General store in Alta Sierra, and the Higgins Marketplace in South County come to mind — to wonder why they can't get similar breaks.

Alas, the issue may become mute before the supervisors get a chance to vote on it. A bank spokesman said the board of directors might forego the realignment because the cost far exceeds original estimates. In that case, Miller's plea for the county "to step out of the box on this one" will be for naught.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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