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County audit rips code enforcement - Officers lack focus as they look into noise, eyesores and other complaints, the auditor says.

By Jeff Switzer
The Daily Herald Writer

Dec. 1, 2005

Snohomish County, WA - Officers who investigate junked cars, illegal bulldozing and noise complaints in Snohomish County need better focus, an audit says.

With better direction, the county's worst offenders could be brought to justice more swiftly, and that would better satisfy taxpayers who file complaints.

County performance auditor Kymber Waltmunson said the lack of a clear philosophy is apparent among county code enforcers and management.

A performance audit of Snohomish County's code enforcement division targeted 62 problems, including: * A glut of complaints means some people aren't called back unless a complainant calls four or five times. * Complaints can only be filed by phone or by fax, and should be able to be filed online. * The division has no documented policies or procedures. * There is no method for prioritizing which complaints should be investigated first.
"In almost every interview, we asked, 'What is your mission? What are you going for?' " she said. "Basically, we got 32 different answers."

Waltmunson made 62 recommendations for improvements to the code enforcement division, some of which echo a similar 1992 audit.

"It's been a neglected division for many years," she said. "Someone needs to tell them exactly what they're supposed to be doing. Then they can start prioritizing violations."

Officers have had only general encouragement to investigate complaints within 15 days, Waltmunson said.

If someone is bulldozing on a stream "and 10 days later code enforcement gets out there to look at it, the damage is done and it's very, very difficult to change," she said.

Code officers are a cross between building inspectors and police officers, and work for the county's development department. They receive thousands of complaints annually about code violations, including illegal building, noise and eyesores.

In 2004, officers addressed 758 violations: 22 percent of them for moving dirt without a permit, 22 percent for building without a permit, and 20 percent for junkyard conditions on properties.

Sometimes the officers issue citations. More often, they persuade property owners to remove junked cars or get proper construction permits.

The audit was requested by Craig Ladiser, the county's planning and development services director, who acknowledged long-standing failings in the division he oversees. The audit formalizes the department's challenges, he said.

Ladiser said the 62 recommendations would be prioritized by early 2006, but the plan will be a major undertaking.

"All of them are valid concerns," he said. "Some are addressed already. ... We will follow through with these recommendations."

Budget cuts, major changes to development codes and changing expectations from top county officials have compounded the problems, Ladiser said. The county had just one code enforcement officer in the early 1990s, boomed to 10 officers in the late 1990s and has five officers today.

Waltmunson's audit included interviews with 34 public officials, ranging from the County Council to code officers themselves.

The division needs better documentation and better coordination with other county departments and state agencies, Waltmunson said.

An audit in 1992 indicated that many of the same issues were problems 14 years ago.

"Of the 24 recommendations made in 1992, 16 remain unaddressed but pertinent," she said.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.


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