County plans switch to flat-fee rates for permits

May 4, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to remake the way the county permitting agency does business. The executive called for a new rate structure for the agency — and a switch from unpopular hourly fees to fixed fees — as well as a new unit to handle permitting in rural King County.

Constantine unveiled a reform package for the Department of Development and Environmental Services last week.

He proposed the updated rate structure to make the permitting process more predictable for customers, and to offer incentives for employees. The executive ordered the permitting agency to develop financial projections in order for the flat-fee structure to be included in the 2011 budget. King County Council members will adopt the budget by late fall. Under the reform package, the existing rate structure will remain in place for the rest of the year. Constantine also proposed creating a Rural Land Use and Permitting Unit by next year.

The agency will lay off workers in May — cuts ordered by the council in the 2010 budget. The department has experienced a lighter workload due to the decline in construction.

“Remaking DDES is one of my top priorities, and starting now to create a unit that exclusively serves rural property owners will better prepare us for the day when cities have completed their annexations and the agency primarily serves the rural areas,” Constantine said in a news release.

County Councilman Reagan Dunn — who represents unincorporated King County south of Issaquah, as well as Bellevue and Newcastle — praised the proposed changes.

“The hourly rate and customer service are the two biggest challenges facing DDES today,” he said in the release. “Executive Constantine’s proposal addresses these issues and appears to move the agency in the right direction. I appreciate his approach to the issue and look forward to working with him to institute these reforms as soon as possible.”

The hourly rate has not changed from $140 per hour since 2004. Workers process about 120 different types of building and land-use permits, or about 3,700 permits per year. The fees sustain a $17.8 million annual budget for the department.

“This proposal to improve customer service in our building department is in direct response to complaints that King County has received from customers and will go a long way toward achieving transparency and better responsiveness,” County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who represents Issaquah, Sammamish and large areas of unincorporated northeastern King County, said in the release.

King County will continue to encourage cities to annex nearby urban unincorporated neighborhoods, such as Klahanie, in order to keep the permitting agency focused on rural property owners. Officials said 60 percent of the permitting workload currently comes from urban unincorporated areas located within potential annexation areas.

Despite annexations by Burien and Kirkland, the county remains responsible for Klahanie and several other unincorporated neighborhoods. Klahanie remains part of the long-term growth plan for Issaquah, although Issaquah and Sammamish officials could someday redraw the annexation map.

“A new focus on rural land uses acknowledges that the concept of ‘one-size-fits-all’ does not always work for diverse needs such as farms and subdivisions,” Lambert said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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