Investigators: Burned by fees - as sluggish economy drags tax revenues down, local governments charge more for basic services



SEATTLE, WA- As a sluggish economy drags tax revenues down, more local governments are charging hefty fees for basic services such as health and fire inspections and building permits.

But the hit has some customers feeling burned.

In one case, even King County Executive Ron Sims says the fees have gotten out of hand.

Pay as you go sounds like a fair way to do business, but when Keith Drechsel built his dream house near Carnation, he cleared too close to a creek behind the house, which started what turned out to be an expensive process.

The County made him re-vegetate the bank with native plants and post a $1,000 bond. County officials said Drechsel would get the bond back if the plants survived for three years.

They did, and after Drechsel called to find out how to retrieve his bond, he got a surprise: a bill in the mail for $167.48.

"I didn’t know what the bill was for. There's no detail on the bill. I contacted the accounting department and they said it was for my 15-minute phone call,” he said.

It didn't stop there. By the time county inspectors paid a brief visit and approved the plantings the tab was more than $600 including a hefty bill to get his $1,000 bond back even though he'd complied with the requirements the county imposed.

"They charged me one hour at $132 dollars an hour to release a $1,000 bond,” he said.

It was no mistake.

That rate, $132 per hour, is the going rate at the Department of Development and Environmental Services, which makes it the one King County agency that doesn't get any taxpayer money.

The department supports itself by charging for nearly every service.

So when case workers pore over development plans, the meter is running. For DDES employees, 75 percent of every work day is supposed to be billable and is tracked, hour by hour, on an agency computer.

And if the billing is off, layoffs won't be far behind.

"A third of our agency has gone in just two years because the recession is here and the work isn't there. So we don't pad," said DDES manager Michael Frawley.

Builders complain that they are being nickeled and dimed to death, except that its not for nickels and dimes. Most declined to air their grievances publicly, but Celeste Fardig stepped forward.

She's developing a high-end Street of Dreams project near Issaquah and says inspectors would visit the site with no notice even when no one was working.

"Most of the work was done. The site was put to bed for the winter. And they just kept coming out and coming out and coming out,” she said.

The first clue that the inspectors had been so busy was a bill for thousands of dollars.

And when Fardig went to pay the bill in person, she got another surprise: a $93.50 service charge for her to go to the counter and pay $9,392.

County Executive Sims, a big supporter of user fees, says that is going too far.

"If I'm paying, you don't sit there and say because I'm standing in front of you and you’re taking my money, that that's billable," Sims said.

Sims says he's gotten enough complaints about bogus billing that he's ordered an audit of DDES.

"We're going to do a pretty good review because we want people to be comfortable with this model,” he said.

In the meantime, Keith Drechsel finally gave up fighting his bill and paid, including the $132, just to get the county release that $1,000 bond that was his in the first place.

DDES says it has instituted systems to try to prevent overbilling. The agency says if a project hits a certain price, a computer automatically alerts a manager. But builders say their problems with DDES persist.


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