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Fee hikes pay off for county

By increasing planning and community development fees, Island County has been able to stash away nearly $1.1 million since 2002.

Approximately $351,000 of that was signed away last week when the Board of Island County Commissioners approved a contract for land-use attorney Keith Dearborn.

The hire is in anticipation of this year’s scheduled update to the critical areas ordinance of Island County’s comprehensive plan.

“The way we’ve saved the money is just a few years of staffing turnovers have allowed me to stay under budget and the revenue collected has been in excess of our operating costs,” Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said.

In 2002, the Island County Commissioners approved a 15-percent increase of planning and community development fees. This lump increase came after several years of 5-percent increases. Since 1993, those fees have increased a total of 40 percent.

To build a home valued at $200,000 would require a $1,440 building permit. In addition, the county will tack on a $936 plan review fee and the state adds a $4.50 fee. Mechanical and plumbing fees add $22 and $20 respectively.

In 1998, when permit fees were increased by 5 percent, the permit fee for the same $200,000 home was $1,251. The plan review fee was $813.

These fees pay for plans inspections and any minor revisions necessary.

According to 2005 budget estimates, Island County is expected to take in more than $2 million in planning fees.

Bakke said that his office is able to generate a profit because it is understaffed.

“We’ve squeezed more and people are giving 110 percent,” he said. “The staff would be happy to see a slow down (in permit activity) to speed up the turnaround in permit time.”

Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said that the fee increase made three years ago was badly needed.

“Before we decided to review planning’s fees, planning was barely breaking even” she said. “Which was a problem because we were developing and defending the comprehensive plan and that had to come out of the general fund.”

While other county programs struggle to make ends meet, the planning department has been able to save up the funds needed to hire consultants and conduct scientific studies on the county’s critical areas.

“Part of it has to do with the fact that growth management issues are very costly,” Marlow said. “The Board of County Commissioners is very conservative financially and they’re going to make sure they have the funding to handle these issues.”

Land use issues sometimes result in a costly series of appeals and court cases. Island County is still fighting a case from the development of the county’s comprehensive plan.

“Government isn’t in business to make a profit,” Marlow said. “The goal is to break even, not to show a profit.”

In addition to funding the review of the critical areas ordinance, the increase in fees has also allowed the planning department to fund half the cost of an attorney to handle land use issues for the county and additional staff, Bakke said.

The county also has plans for the remainder of the $1.1 million, he said. Biologists will be hired in order to determine the impact growth is having on critical areas.

“We will be looking at wetland and stream science,” Bakke said. “Part of that is doing a very substantive scientific evaluation of current standards.”

Bakke said the amount of money being spent shows the county’s commitment to being thorough with its review process.

“WEAN doesn’t need to worry, we’ll be spending plenty of time with scientists,” Bakke said, referring to the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which has challenged past planning decisions in court.

The critical areas ordinance review will address each type of area individually, Bakke said. Frequently flooded areas, geological hazards, aquifer recharge areas, fish and wildlife conservation areas and wetlands will all be addressed.

A final agenda for the review process will be announced later this month, Bakke said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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