EVERETT — The housing slowdown struck Snohomish County’s planning department again.
The county gave pink slips last week to 24 building inspectors, biologists and administrative staff members — even the deputy director. They were expected to be gone by the end of this month.
“It’s been very emotional,” Planning Director Craig Ladiser said. “There were no more solutions. We had tried everything we could possibly try.”
Two years ago, with the housing market at its peak, the department employed 261 workers. With these layoffs, the department is down to 97. That brings staffing to early 1990s levels.
The economy has hit the county’s planning department especially hard because it depends on permits for money. Though April figures released this week show an increase in pending home sales over last year, permits for new houses and lots remain low.
The department issued 372 permits for single-family homes in March 2005, 155 in March 2008 and just 51 this March.
The planning department in March realized that it would have to cut $5 million — 28 percent— from its $17.8 million budget. The department was able to cut about $1.2 million without layoffs, Ladiser said, but the rest had to come from staff.
Even with less work, staff is getting stretched thin, Ladiser said. Waits at customer-service desks, which once averaged 15 to 20 minutes, now might last about two hours. A building permit that used to take six weeks might take 10.
With the layoffs, the department has started to reorganize and hopes to shorten the delays.
Starting this week, the customer service desks have cut hours. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, staffers will work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. On Thursdays, workers will close down service counters to process permits.
A manager at Pacific Ridge Homes, which is developing 160 lots at Pacific Meadows in Marysville and another 94 lots at Larimer Crossing south of Snohomish, said the waits won’t help an already ailing building industry. The county has, nevertheless, aided builders by being up-front about its new limitations, Lynn Eshleman said.
“The county is at least setting the expectations,” Eshleman said.
Over the past year, planning has sidestepped layoffs through a variety of moves.
A year ago, planning lost 25 positions but transferred the affected workers to the public works department. Again in December, the department lost 85 positions. Only 10 of those people ended up jobless, Ladiser said. Some left voluntarily.
County Councilman Dave Somers, who heads the planning committee, worried that losing so many workers would hamper the planning department when building finally picks up.
“We lost a lot of experienced people,” Somers said. “I think there’s going to be some difficulties when it does ramp up again.”
Housing permits have stopped their slide, giving Ladiser “a glimmer” of hope that things have stabilized. Should building rebound, he expected to bring back some of the 33 planning employees currently on loan to public works.
Planners aren’t the only county employees hurting.
Falling revenues that became apparent over the past two months forced the County Council and County Executive Aaron Reardon to trim the general fund budget to about $200 million from $206 million. They managed the cuts without layoffs through furlough agreements with most county workers.
Public-service counters at the auditor, treasurer and assessor’s offices have also had to shorten their schedules. They will no longer tend to customers between noon and 1 p.m. They also have scheduled six days off during the course of the year, and they leave at 3:30 p.m. on Fridays because the county building closes at 4 p.m.
The solid waste division, which gets most of its budget from fees paid by private garbage haulers, is laying off about 40 of its 160 employees. The division has come up short of its projected budget because the amount of trash is down significantly.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.