EVERETT — Snohomish County took steps Monday to provide relief for the idled construction industry and to cut government spending during the coronavirus pandemic.
The County Council voted unanimously to extend expiration dates for development applications, approvals and permits by 120 days.
The four-month extension applies to development clearances that hadn’t yet expired as of March 23, when Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-home order that put many construction projects on hold. It covers more than two dozen types of approvals, including rezonings, variances, building permits, site plans, subdivisions and conditional permits.
The construction industry faces a slew of challenges in the pandemic’s wake that will delay projects, says the new county ordinance. Hiring workers will take more time. A backlog of county and state inspections that has accumulated during the shutdown is likely to affect timelines. And supply chain disruptions will probably continue, making equipment and construction materials needed to get jobs done harder to find.
“It is pretty clear this ‘pandemic’ and the resulting stoppage of construction could be catastrophic for this building industry,” Merle Ash, a land-use consultant who serves on the county planning commission, said in an April 16 email to the council, urging adoption of an extension. “Worse, it will just add to the cost of housing, further disrupting the quest for attainable or affordable homes.”
The council, bracing for a multimillion-dollar revenue shortfall due to the public health crisis, also passed a 60-day hiring freeze covering all county departments. The move could save the county $350,000 to $600,000 a month, county staff have estimated.
Council Vice Chair Stephanie Wright cast the lone “no” vote after advocating for a hiring freeze that would last through the end of the year and include exceptions for the Sheriff’s Office and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
The county relies on sales tax for roughly $70 million of the $260 million general fund budget, but that money is expected to be much less this year due to the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.
County revenue forecasters have offered varying estimates of the resulting shortfall, with the caveat that better numbers won’t be available until the county gets last month’s sales tax figures, in early May. One estimate, prepared on the assumption that business would return to normal by May, pegged the shortfall at nearly $17 million. A past county news release said that the county’s general fund budget may need to be slashed by 10% or more to offset the financial blows.
The hiring freeze is the first step in a plan to curb spending, county staff told the council on Monday.
Other measures are likely to include restrictions on travel, training and overtime. County staff plan to apply for grants that would provide financial relief. Officials might also delay or cancel planned studies or projects.
The county is also likely to dig into a fund balance left over from past years, which was almost $50 million at the end of last year, said county Finance Director Nathan Kennedy.
Layoffs will be “a last resort,” said legislative analyst Jim Martin.