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Why pay the city for poor service?

In concept, the charge seems to be a simple, rather dry accounting problem:

To determine how much it costs the city to issue permits for building and development, determine what proportion of those costs to charge to builders and developers, then develop a fee schedule to recover those costs.

But when a citizen committee assembled for the first time this week to look at those issues, the focus was less on cost and more on city action, or lack thereof.

“I’m having trouble separating out the quality of service from the fees,” said committee member Kim Burke-Weiner, whose application for a day-care facility in her new home – a legally permitted use – has been stalled in the city bureaucracy for several weeks.

“The problem comes when you go in one week and can’t get an answer to your question, then you go back and get one answer, but then a week later you get a different answer,” she said. “The level of service ought to reflect what we’re paying.”

Former city councilmember Liz Murray, another committee member, agreed.

“It’s not the amount per se,” Murray said. “But it’s the time and the mistakes.

“When you are told weeks after you apply and go to a lot of expense that your project simply isn’t going to work, that’s unacceptable.”

The committee was appointed earlier this month by Mayor Darlene Kordonowy. At issue is the roughly $2.8 million per year the city spends on “building and development services” – issuing so-called “ministerial” permits for homes and other structures, and the so-called “discretionary” decisions made on land-use applications.

The city recoups less than half its outlays – some $1.33 million – from applicants, and recovers far more from value-based building permits than from the hourly fees charged for land-use applications.

The seven-member citizen board and the city council’s finance committee heard a presentation Monday from consultants about the accounting issues involved.

The citizen group is charged with taking the consultant’s report, and making its own recommendations to the council panel, with a target date of June 12.

Comments at the Monday meeting suggested that the accounting questions may be outweighed by broader philosophical issues.

Developer Dick Allen noted that a unique home design will require far more staff time than will any individual home in a subdivision where designs are similar, yet the building-permit costs are equivalent.

“Compared to the cost of services I get, I don’t overpay for subdivision approvals but I do overpay for building permits,” he said.

A principal issue was the extent to which development regulation benefits the individual applicant, as opposed to the island as a whole.

“This island wants to save our wetlands and our trees,” Murray said. “But I’m not sure some guy coming in who wants to short plat should pay for that.”

The question of who benefits arises in other contexts, the committee members said.

Planning Director Stephanie Warren said the staff spends significant time answering public requests for information, sometimes in general and sometimes related to specific projects.

“Isn’t that what my tax dollars go for – somebody in city hall who can answer my questions?” asked committee member Carolyn Frame.

Much of the permitting cost is driven by citizen challenges to development proposals, prompting Murray to ask whether those bringing appeals ought to pay, particularly if their challenges are rejected.

“We may recommend new fees, like for people who protest unsuccessfully,” she said. “We need to look at the equities all the way around.”

Local naturalist Ian Bentryn said the city shouldn’t place significant impediments before citizens seeking information. But he joined the others in calling for better service, relating his own experience in a recent application for a short-plat subdivision.

“The planner would tell me that it would take a couple more weeks,” Bentryn said, “then I would go in six weeks later, check with him, and he would say he needed more information.

“But during the whole time, he never once called me to ask those questions, and I do have a phone.”

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