Clallam commissioners focus on code violations, resources

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County commissioners have committed to improving the way the county deals with code violations.

Commissioners Mark Ozias and Bill Peach agreed Monday — with Commissioner Randy Johnson excused — to work with staff to help alleviate a backlog of complaints about dilapidated properties, piles of trash, junk vehicles and other violations.

Barb McFall, the county’s lone code enforcement officer, told commissioners that she is facing a backlog of about 200 cases and that customer service has suffered.

“Honestly, I am burnt out,” said McFall, a former Port Angeles police sergeant. “And I think that would be true for whoever you put in here.”

Community Development Director Mary Ellen Winborn asked commissioners to hire a full-time administrative assistant to work on code enforcement or a second code enforcement officer.

“Barb has done an excellent job,” Winborn said, “of doing a whole lot with very, very little.”

Before making a hiring decision during budget talks this fall, commissioners will look for other solutions that might include dispersing code enforcement duties among other departments and revising the code to encourage compliance.

Commissioners put $30,000 in the 2017 budget to help with code enforcement cleanups.

“I don’t think if we handed you 10 code enforcement officers that we would have a tenfold increase in productivity,” Peach told Winborn.

“I say that because I believe that you’ve got some obstacles that need to be addressed. A couple of them that I see are how do we need to organize our code so that there is the potential for cost recovery, and so that the individual receiving your [violation] letter doesn’t just throw it in the trash.”

Sheriff Bill Benedict, whose office provided code enforcement before it was moved to Community Development in 2015, recommended that commissioners decriminalize most of the code that McFall is enforcing.

“Why I say that is that when you criminalize something, it really ties her hands and our hands from the point of view that we have to build a criminal case,” Benedict said.

“In the end, we have to reach that beyond a reasonable doubt status as opposed to a preponderance of the evidence.”

Code enforcement officers and the county health officer have “tremendous authority” to enforce codes by issuing civil citations, Benedict said.

Commissioners directed staff to find examples of code language from counties that have had success in code enforcement.

Ozias asked McFall to bring more data about her caseload to a future work session with the full board.

“I believe that we will find a way to improve your situation, and I’m sorry that it can’t be as easy as writing a check right now,” Ozias told McFall.

“But I do think there are some things we can do, and I certainly am committed to working with you and others — and quickly — over the next few months to really put the focus on this that it warrants and to come up with a plan for making some improvements.”

Clallam County is in the midst of a hiring freeze as commissioners grapple with a long-term structural budget deficit.

Last week, County Administrator Jim Jones said the projected general fund deficit for 2017 had been reduced from $2.7 million to $1.5 million thanks to spending cuts in all major categories.

A full-time administrative assistant or code enforcement officer would cost between $56,000 to $66,000 in pay, Winborn said in an executive summary.

“The tough question that I think we should also answer is if we are going to give this a higher priority than it has had, and resources — that’s what’s being requested — what do we get rid of?” Peach said.

“Is there another activity that we’re engaged in that we honestly believe has less benefit to the citizens of Clallam County?”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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