It was Job 1 for a new city.
After the cake and balloons, on the very day in 2003 when Spokane Valley was proclaimed an incorporated municipality, it was the next order of business: setting up to process building permits.
However, when putting together a fee schedule, the leadership of the state’s newest city was determined to do things differently than their unincorporated neighbors. After careful consideration, the City Council opted to adopt Spokane County’s fee structure – even though it often didn’t recover the costs involved to provide the service – on an interim basis in order to keep things simple for customers.
It was something, however, that the city vowed to only make temporary. Fees that would more accurately reflect the work involved by city employees were eventually put in place.
“We’re trying to recover the actual costs involved,” Interim City Manager Lee Walton told the council at the time.
Over seven years later, it looks like Spokane County may switch over to that same philosophy. However, it won’t be without some growing pains.
At Tuesday morning’s county CEO meeting, Randy Vissia, building director, told county commissioners that – for a variety of legal reasons – the county should make strides to adopt more of a cost-recovery type of system, rather than basing fees on the total value of the structure that is being permitted. The problem is, most counties still use the value-based system and it’s often less expensive for smaller projects.
“Valuation – I don’t know how it came about,” Vissia said. “The county has been using it to about 57 years.”
There are, however, more and more legal challenges to that system of doing business.
“Cost recovery is not going away,” Vissia said.
While cost recovery is a more accurate way of assessing fees, it does have its drawbacks. Customers can accuse that building inspections are taking too long or being done too inefficiently, thus costing them more money.
But an even bigger problem is on smaller projects, say a $1,000 picnic shelter, where it costs the county $1,200 to pay for time, salaries and paperwork. Right now, such an inspection only costs $25.
“There is no way we’re covering costs now,” Vissia said.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke was aghast that it could potentially cost $1,200 for someone to secure a building permit for a structure worth less than that.
“It’s a complete change in philosophy,” he said.
Vissia said he will run more cost comparisons, but a cost-recovery system would save the builder of a 2,500-square-foot single-family home about $425 in permit fees. Commercial builders would see the greatest savings.
Board Chairman Mark Richard said he supported more research into the issue and talking with developers to get their feedback.
County Attorney Jim Emacio said the county would be prudent not to make too many changes too soon, as it wouldn’t make sense to adopt a fee structure based on philosophy that wasn’t being used elsewhere.
“I don’t know if cost-recovery is the best or most appropriate,” Emacio said. “We may want to see what others decide to do.”