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Staffing struggles and permit delays

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | December 25, 2020 1:07 AM

Two weeks ago, the Kootenai County Department of Community Development was short five positions, putting staff weeks behind schedule in a record permit year.

The problem? Salary pay that was — for years — below the competitive market value, department director David Callahan said.

“At one time, we were as much as 18% behind the marketplace,” Callahan said. “Over the last few years, nearly all of the planning and building inspection positions have turned over because people are finding that Post Falls, Spokane, Rathdrum, and other nearby agencies are paying anywhere from eight to 15% more than we are.”

What’s more, Callahan said, other municipalities have guaranteed cost-of-living increases built into position salaries, whereas the county does not. The issue has been around for a long time, Callahan said, existing before his hire seven years ago.

The aftereffect has been particularly bad this year, Callahan said, as his department lost seven employees. To mitigate the issue, the department conducted another wage study, which justified raising planning staff salaries by 8 percent and providing building inspectors with bonus incentives for each month they stay with the county. With the increases, which the county commissioners approved last Thursday, community development staff salaries would be equivalent to the surrounding competition.

An entry-level planner pays about $49,000 a year, Callahan said, and planning managers make about $71,500. Building inspectors make between $45,378 and $47,935 a year, depending on experience.

Thankfully, Callahan said, the department has been able to fill three empty positions in the last two weeks. While still becoming accustomed to their roles, the new staff can help with the record number of permit applications the department is seeing.

Building permits are up 43% since 2019, which was also one of the busiest years on record, Callahan said, planning projects are up an average of 76%, minor subdivisions increased by 58%, conditional use permits are up 33%, variances 75%, and major subdivisions 167%.

Processing requests will take longer than usual, especially for building permits and land use applications that typically require multiple steps and longer-term action.

Permit applications are usually processed for completeness within one to two business days, a department media release said. Due to staffing challenges and the volume of applications, an initial review of plans could take eight to nine weeks.

To expedite the review process, the department has contracted Northwest Code Professionals, an outside planning review consultant, and new staff members Darby Turnbull, Brent Bjornberg, and Thomas Christopher.

Building inspection requests aim for next-day returns, but the release warned some applications had experienced delays of up to six business days.

For land-use project applications, the department says it may take one week before staff can conduct research or schedule a meeting, making pre-application meetings may be out as far as three weeks. Completeness reviews may take up to a week, sufficiency review between two and three weeks, a public notification from one month to 45 days, and public hearings as far out as four to eight months — the release said.

“We don’t have the luxury of not processing things, so everything is suffering. It’s a matter of degree,” Callahan said. “Now that we have hired three positions and a consultant that is conducting building permit plan review, we should start to see measurable improvement within the next few weeks, but it really is too soon to make predictions.”