'Roller coaster' economy taps Pierce County PALS budget

Pierce County’s Planning and Land Services (PALS) director told councilmembers Thursday that revenue is expected to be down 2.5 percent in 2010 in comparison to the revenue projected by the end of this year.

PALS Director Chuck Kleeberg spoke during Pierce County Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting. The meeting was one of a series that began last month to focus on the finances of each department as the county finalizes next year’s budget.

According to Kleeberg, the deficit is expected to be offset by eliminating three full-time positions, collecting revenue from a “slight uptick” in residential building permits, and possible fee increases. The current budget proposed by Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy calls raising fee increases by an average of 6.8 percent to generate $1.3 million. A bulk of the increases would be applied to PALS.

He noted commercial and land use activities will continue to lag throughout 2010. But his department has seen a gradual increase in residential permitting that is expected to continue even after a federal first-time-homebuyer incentive program expires in November; there is some discussion of extending the program into April 2010.

PALS currently has 126 full-time employees. Since 2006, the department has eliminated 50 full-time positions. This year, the department — except for one union — participated in nine days of unpaid furloughs. “We’ve been on our own little roller coaster ride,” said Kleeberg. He noted a permitting boom in 2005 began to drop off in mid-2006 and bottomed out in 2007.

A building amnesty program was introduced earlier this month. It allows property owners who built structures or purchased property with a structure built without permits to get into compliance without paying penalties. PALS is expected to begin using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tools to identify undocumented construction and contact property owners about possible penalties and getting into compliance. According to Kleeberg, the program arose after hearing from building inspectors who reported a high number of non-permitted activity. The program will run until Sept. 30, 2012.

Although the amnesty program is expected to bring in $310,000 in 2010, it will only cover the costs of the employees assigned to the program. “I think the program will pay for itself in the first year,” said Kleeberg.

The current budget proposal also calls for less spending in the area of historic preservation, which is a division of PALS. As currently proposed, the county has budgeted $100,000 on historical document maintenance in 2010 compared to $496,200 budgeted in 2009. Similarly, the budget proposal would eliminate funding for a part-time employee to write grants seeking money for historic preservation projects.

Public testimony will be accepted Nov. 5, 6, 9 and 10 in the Council Chambers. Written testimony may be submitted at any time to the council office — http://www.piercecountywa.gov/pc/abtus/ourorg/council/contactus.htm . The final budget will be adopted Nov. 10.

For more information about the 2010 Pierce County budget, visit http://www.piercecountywa.gov/pc/abtus/ourorg/council/budget.htm .

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For earlier Index coverage of the Pierce County budget, click on the following links:

1. Pierce County budget process begins next week — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1625981&more=0

2. Pierce County Executive’s budget proposal cuts 200 jobs, $70 million in spending — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1628887&more=0

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