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County commisioners may rent out own chambers — Officials say free public use is uncontitutional gift of resource

County leaders are trying to figure out what their meeting space is worth on the local rental market.

At a Monday Kitsap County business meeting, the Board of County Commissioners heard of plans to create a fee structure for public use  of the commissioner’s chamber and meeting rooms, such as the Port Blakely Sinclair meeting rooms.

Officials say the move is not a revenue effort in the face of a $2.4 million shortfall in the county’s general budget, but rather a needed consideration before allowing the meeting spaces and chambers inside the 75,000 square foot administration building to be used by the public.

Commmissioner Josh Brown cited the League of Women Voters as an example of those who’ve inquired about using the chambers recently. The board of commissioners thought a fee structure should be looked at and the county needed to create a way to not lose money from public use, he said.

“We need to adopt a policy to avoid the cost burden,” he said.

Angie Silva, a county projects planner, said her department was tasked with discovering the costs of after hours, non-governmental usage for the rooms and the chamber and design a fee structure to recover them. The chamber contains specific and expensive equipment that’s easily broken if misused, she said.

Commissioners Monday heard from county staff that though Washington state law requires the county to make meeting spaces for public available free, “This free use may be viewed as an unconstitutional gift of public property.”

Silva said the legal questions about the constitutionality of providing free space to the public was based on the legal option of the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office.

BOCC chair Charlotte Garrido said the fee schedule should have been completed last year when the League previoulsy asked.

“We were advised that  year that is would  be a gift of funds,” Garrido said.

Deputy prosecutor Jacquelyn Auferheid said the Prosecutor’s Office would not discuss the basis of their opinion. It’s a matter of attorney client priveledge, she said.

She said the opinion was not the work of a single person.

“A lot goes into a legal opinion,” she said.

The goal is to find a solution that is both legal and good for the citizens while remaining good to the county budget, she said.

“We want a policy carefully thought through,” she said. “We need to look at a policy.”

The county’s preliminary fee schedule looked at the city of Bremerton’s fees for the Norm Dicks Center meeting spaces for guidance, Brown said.

Garrido said what was looked at Monday was only a draft for discussion purposes.

Unlike Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Bainbridge, Bremerton charges for the use of its state-of-the-art chamber.

One proposed fee from Monday’s presentation to the BOCC creates $300 in fees to use the commissioners chamber for a one hour meeting with 36 chairs and use of audio visual equipment.

“That wouldn’t help us at all,” said Catherine Ahl, League of Women Voters of Kitsap County Board of Directors president.

The league was interested in the chamber to hold their election cycle  candidates forums. The specific reason to use the county commissioner’s chamber is the ability to record and playback the forum to expose as many citizens as possible to the candidates.

“We like that,” Ahl said.

That service, however, would add $100 per hour to the bill under the proposed fee structure.

Also under consideration is a fee waiver for non-profits, school districts  and other government agencies and the question of alcohol being allowed.

Garrido said it’s a tough question of fairness and free. Whatever is created has to be the same for everyone, non-profit or not, she said.

Facing an ever-shriking budgets year after year since the recession began in ernest in 2008, the county has developed a regiment of energy saving measures such as limited operation hours. Garrido said that most of the use by public use would occcur in those off hours and would have a cost of some sort becuase the administration  building would have to be opened, set up, cleaned and closed.

“It would require staff,” she said.

Most current non-commissioner use is done by many of the other county departments.

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