Building costs too high? Residents question whether high costs
are result of 'more critical areas' or inefficiencies
With its open spaces, miles of shoreline and environmental
consciousness, Bainbridge Island's building costs are almost 10 times
higher than other cities in the region
JOHN WALDO/ Staff Writer
Bainbridge Island, WA - With its open spaces, miles of shoreline
and environmental consciousness, Bainbridge Island isn’t like other
cities in Western Washington.
But are those differences sufficient to explain why the costs of issuing
a building or planning permit are higher on Bainbridge than in certain
other cities in the region – in some cases, almost 10 times as high?
“There are more critical areas here, the process is more complicated
so it takes longer,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who said she thought
conditions specific to the island drove up permit costs.
Bainbridge City Council chair Michael Pollock was less sanguine.
“I think there may be some inefficiencies,” he said. “As legislators,
we can’t get involved in this, but it may be something the administration
wants to take a look at.”
A recent consultants’ report, prepared in connection with an examination
of whether the city should increase the fees it charges to builders,
listed the level of activity and the overall costs for Bainbridge
Island and six other communities – Bellevue, Bellingham, Kirkland,
Mercer Island, Redmond and Vancouver.
The city’s costs are a combination of direct costs in building and
planning staff time, support costs – uch things as legal and training
costs – and general administrative costs – such things as planning
administration and pro-rata costs of building occupancy and a share
of general city overhead.
Last year, Bainbridge Island incurred direct and indirect costs of
$1.6 million to issue 495 building permits, a cost per permit of $2,342.
That was more than twice the per-permit cost of $1,113 in Bellevue,
the next highest city. Building permit costs in the other five cities
were lower still, ranging from $725 in Mercer Island down to $329
On the land-use-planning side, Bainbridge Island incurred costs of
$1.67 million to issue 235 permits, a per-permit cost of $7,115. The
next-highest cost was registered in Kirkland, at $5,879.
City Planning Director Stephanie Warren said some of the cost differences
stem from the character of the island.
“We have a lot of vacant land and a lot of new construction, which
takes longer to inspect than a remodel,” she said.
Mainly, though, Warren said that the cost numbers are driven by what
the city’s accountants decide to include within the cost categories.
City Finance Director Ralph Eells agrees.
“We have a new, expensive city hall, and we’re charging a pro-rata
portion of that to building and planning,” City Finance Director Ralph
Eells said. “That’s a substantial amount.”
The consultant’s report, based on city-furnished data, shows an “occupancy”
cost for the building and planning department of over $500,000, which
works out to more than $700 for each permit.
Some of the costs come from the level of scrutiny applied, Eells said.
“We have a significantly higher standard of care for the community
in terms of looking at environmental issues,” he said.
The purpose of the consultant’s report was to aid in determining whether
the city should recover a greater percentage of its costs from the
applicants. Presently, the city charges applicants some 73 percent
of the costs it incurs in issuing a building permit, but only 22 percent
of city costs of issuing a planning permit, such as a subdivision
While the other cities recovered a higher percentage of their costs,
Bainbridge’s dollar recoveries were in line with the other cities.
Bainbridge charged $1,713 per building permit, well above charges
in other cities that ranged from $1,113 in Bellevue down to $304 in
On the planning side, Bainbridge fell in the middle in terms of dollar
recoveries. The $1,549 it charged per planning permit was well below
the $2,833 charged in Redmond or the $2,490 charged by Kirkland, but
topped the $894 charged in Mercer Island and the $456 charged by Vancouver.
Apple to apple?
Consultant Tracey Dunlap cautioned against making judgments based
on the cost comparisons, because the cities derive their figures in
“In a gross way, you can say that something costs more or less, but
you can’t really say whether it’s twice as much or three times as
much without going into much more detail. And when you do, you may
find that it ought to cost more.”
Cost discrepancies can highlight areas for inquiry, she said.
“Information like this may raise questions,” she said, “but it doesn’t
tell you why something costs what it does, nor does it let you make
a judgment as to whether something is good or bad.”
Allan Ferrin, chair of the citizens committee studying the costs,
said the committee favored a higher level of cost recovery on the
planning side, but did not believe applicants should have to pay for
He said the city was taking steps to deal with efficiency problems,
and his personal belief was that it should be given more time to implement
those measures before any major fee changes are enacted.
“I would like to reconvene the committee in six months and see where
we are,” he said.
City council finance committee chair Bill Knobloch said the fee question
is in “political limbo,” and would become part of the overall discussion
of the city budget.
“We have not gotten to the planning department yet, but the efficiency
issue will be one of the thing set look at as the budget discussion
goes forward,” he said.