By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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On Jan. 1, the department began charging for customer service. The first 15 minutes of a permit consultation are free of charge, with additional time charged at $76 an hour.
“The cynical view is that you would be slow-talking and slow-moving in the first 15 minutes in order to collect a fee, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Commissioner John Austin when Stacie Hoskins, planning manager, and Carl Smith, department director, as they presented the report.
“We are not trying to inflate anything,” Hoskins said.
“If I can answer a question quickly, then I can move on to something else.”
Customers already have responded well to the new system and are generally better prepared for the meetings, Hoskins said.
But resources spent on a marijuana permit cannot be charged to the customer since it is mandated by the state — and the state isn’t providing any reimbursement, she said.
“I had to spend six hours on one application recently, and we won’t get any of that money back,” Hoskins said.
The department’s role in marijuana licensing involves the determination of whether the site falls within legal boundaries and is not in proximity to a park or a school.
“There are two parts to the approval process: the person and the site,” Hoskins said.
“The state takes care of the person, running background checks, while we make sure the proposed site meets all the requirements.”
This involves a close inspection of the site’s location. If it is not qualified, Hoskins must cite the exact parcel that causes the disqualification, she said.
Hoskins said she has received about 10 applications so far for processing and growing, but none for retail, and has returned about half of them to the state.
Another potential expense is that if the county recommends rejection of an application, representatives must be able to travel to Olympia for a hearing, with expenses not reimbursed.
The new fees charged to other customers are projected to bring in an additional $100,776 to the department.
The new system was begun because grant funding ended in December, Hoskins said.
“At first, we thought that people would use the free 15 minutes to ‘shop around,’ but that hasn’t been the case,” Hoskins said.
“They are coming in more prepared, and that allows us to use our time and their time more efficiently.”
Each case gets a free 15-minute session, but it is pro-rated as to how much time it will take, with an estimate provided before the session begins, Smith said.
Any preparation or research time is charged to the customer, he said.
Smith said the department has been able to raise about 70 percent of its operating costs through fees. The remainder comes from grants and the county’s general fund.
He said the goal to improve service and decrease the backlog of planning applications is now succeeding but was hampered by a decision to cut back staff hours in January 2013, a move that was reversed in July.
“Going back to 40 hours had a significant emotional impact on the staff and made a big difference in their ability to support their families,” he said.
“I can tell that you’ve made some improvements,” said Commissioner Phil Johnson.
“I am getting a lot fewer complaints and comments about how difficult it is to get a permit.”
Smith said the new resource center, Square One, opening this week offers a collection of tools and services intended to help the public navigate through land-use development and building construction regulations.
“If people start here, they can get the information and assistance they need to have the most efficient and smooth permitting process possible, and also develop in a manner that can protect property values and enhance the environment,” he said.
An open house explaining the service and offering a tour of the DCD demonstration garden will take place from 9 a.m. to noon Friday.
Square One, operating out of the department’s offices at 621 Sheridan St., will be available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.
For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/PDN-Square-1.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.