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Island County department heads differ on impact of re-adding Friday hours

Island residents are assisted by planning department staff at their permitting window Wednesday. - Janis Reid / Whidbey News-Times
Island residents are assisted by planning department staff at their permitting window Wednesday.
— image credit: Janis Reid / Whidbey News-Times

Several Island County department heads say that they can open to the public on Fridays with little to no financial implications.

However, others claim the answer may not be that simple.

During a recent roundtable discussion of department heads, several said that they would have the ability to open immediately without additional expenses or staffing.

In general the larger, better-staffed departments could easily open on Fridays, although some leaders still have concerns. The smaller offices would struggle, they said, for lack of staffing

After deep budget cuts, Island County commissioners decided to close county offices Fridays in December 2009 to give employees extra time to finish work.

Reduced hours for the departments, including planning, public health, auditor and others is particularly troublesome for real estate brokers and builders who experience a domino effect of delays as the result of an unissued permit.

Mary Engle, Island County assessor, said that, while she would need a part-time employee to be bumped up to full-time in order to fully function five days a week, she is willing to staff the window herself on Fridays if the commissioners reverse the 2009 policy.

“I’ve never been against opening on Fridays,” Engle said. “Half of my staff is already here.”

Public Works could easily open on Fridays, according to Public Works Director Bill Oakes, because permitting is a very small part of what the department does.

Planning Director David Wechner said he is hesitant to reopen his office on Fridays because of his department’s current work load.

“Planning and community development is fully staffed on Fridays, but that time is reserved for system improvements, problem-solving meetings and most importantly, permit reviews and work that is best done without interruption,” Wechner said.

Wechner pointed out that planning staff, along with other departments, work Saturdays and Sundays as needed.

Public Health Director Keith Higman said that, while some of the county’s public health offices could easily open five days a week, others might find it difficult because they are only staffed by one or two people.

Higman said that the permitting window of the Coupeville offices, which employs 24 people, could easily open on Fridays. The same is true for the Oak Harbor office, which employs seven, and nursing services, which employs four.

Higman’s top priority, he said, would be opening the county’s Coupeville office and nursing services on Fridays to allow access to birth and death records five days a week and giving the public access to permits.

“These are the services that are most consumed five days a week,” Higman said.

Since the shift to four days a week, the commission has been supportive of applying the same restrictions to all departments not required to remain open by law, such as the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office.

Higman said the larger question is, “should we be a one size fits all, or should we offer additional services as we can?”

County Commissioner Jill Johnson said a piece-meal approach might be a consideration down the road, but that she has not given up hope that they may be able to open offices on Fridays across the board.

“I think there is a higher probability that we can get a portion of the county open sooner with limited hours,” Johnson said. “But I’ve not given up the idea of providing services county wide.”

Commissioners Johnson and Helen Price Johnson both voiced some support for reopening on Fridays but want to see the county’s first quarter tax figures in April before making a decision.

“I don’t see a scenario where it would happen before April,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that if the tax figures are not positive at that time, the board will likely consider opening on Fridays with limited hours.

“I know the real estate industry is picking up… and our hours are hindering that growth,” Johnson said. “If we want to grow our economy, we’ve got to get out of our own way.”

 

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