As county loses staff, neighbors’ complaints have to wait

If you’re bothered by a noisy neighbor, an oversized fence or illegal signs on the roadside, you might have to wait a while for Snohomish County code officers to respond.

Those are among the code violations the county has deemed lower priority.

Because of short staffing, the county’s planning department said lower-level violations must take a back seat to more serious problems, those that pose an immediate fire hazard or a threat to people’s lives or safety. Even getting to those top-priority calls can take up to four days.

“We’re doing the same thing we’ve always done, and responding to every code enforcement complaint that comes in,” county planning director Clay White said.

“Really all it’s saying is making sure we’re getting to those that are of danger right away.”

Snohomish County has jurisdiction over code violations in unincorporated areas. About 1,200 code complaints reach the county each year, or about five on an average workday.

Fielding all of those complaints are just four code officers, plus a supervisor and a support person. That’s only half the number of code enforcement officers the county employed in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of complaints has remained steady.

The loss of staff is one consequence of the economic downturn, which sapped the county planning department of permitting dollars and other revenue it relies on. The planning department has been the hardest-hit, staffing-wise, of any in the county, shrinking from about 250 positions at its peak to about 100 now.

As county leaders begin preparing next year’s budget, it’s unlikely that any money will magically appear to pay for extra code staff.

“We’re still in the cutting mode, not in the building mode,” County Councilman Dave Somers said.

As it stands, two of the county’s four code officers are funded by the public works department, and are directed to focus on public works issues including drainage problems, construction along public roads.

Code enforcement response times issues arose as a topic during a County Council planning meeting late last month.

Several council members expressed alarm at a memo that appeared to say that county staff would be unable to respond to some lower-level offenses, including complaints involving noise, sign or fence problems.

They wondered aloud how the county could tell people that it was unable to enforce laws on the books.

“To tell citizens that we know there might be a violation, but we’re not going to do anything ever? We can’t do that,” Councilman Dave Gossett said later.

Somers had a similar thought: “People lose all respect for the county if we tell them we’re not going to enforce the complaints about code violations, and enforce our own code.”

So did Councilman John Koster: “If you’re the victim of a noise complaint, if you’ve got really noisy neighbors or constantly barking dogs, you don’t want the county to blow you off.”

As it turns out, the county has been able to respond to all of the code complaints brought to its attention, White said. The planning department intends to keep things that way. Some poor wording in the memo may have caused the confusion.

“The upshot is that we’re still doing a great job of enforcing county code, but we set priorities (of the service) that we can provide,” he said.

In some cases, a lower-priority violation can become high priority. That’s possible when an illegal sign or improperly built fence blocks traffic sight lines or is in danger of falling down.

Gossett said he’s glad that the planning department clarified that it has no intention of brushing off lesser complaints.

“I think you can do a prioritization structure, but I think there’s always going to have to be some human judgment involved,” he said.

Somers said he and Koster tend to get a lot of citizen complaints about code issues because their council districts, covering east and north county, include so many unincorporated areas.

“We get more in the summer when people are running dirt bikes or have opened a shooting range in their back yard,” he said. “It comes and goes, but those are the types of complaints that we get.”

It’s the noise associated with those activities that often prompts people to call Somers’ office. Sometimes sheriff’s deputies respond to those complaints, sometimes code officers. Investigating the situation often proves tricky.

“You pretty much have to catch violators in the act and you pretty much have to use a decibel meter to show that they’re over the threshold,” he said. “It’s a very difficult code to enforce.”

Somers said he’d like to look at code fixes to make the process less cumbersome.

Koster wasn’t so confident about legislating better noise enforcement.

There’s only so much the county can do, he said, no matter how many regulations are imposed or resources deployed. As an example, he cited the explosion of fireworks complaints the sheriff’s office receives every year around the July 4 holiday. That’s despite laws telling people what fireworks they legally can light off, as well as when, where and how. There simply aren’t enough deputies to respond every time someone breaks the rules.

“I don’t know how you make something that’s already illegal more illegal,” he said.

People could save a lot of taxpayer resources expended on code violations if they act more neighborly, he said, treating others as they’d like to be treated.

That way, he said, “we’d spend a lot less time refereeing.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;

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