After years without, county has new code compliance officer

Posted 7/10/19

Jefferson County Department of Community Development has hired a new code compliance coordinator after the position was vacant for 10 years.

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After years without, county has new code compliance officer

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Jefferson County Department of Community Development has hired a new code compliance coordinator after the position was vacant for 10 years.

The position had been cut when county budgets were straitened by the economic crises of the mid-2000s. But with the county booming again, county commissioners voted to fund the new position this year and in June, Debra Murdock was hired as the code compliance coordinator at DCD.

According to the Jefferson County website, Murdock’s position will be to respond to citizen complaints regarding building, zoning and land use in Jefferson County.

Working in partnership with the Department of Environmental Public Health and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Murdock will investigate nuisance complaints to determine if there is a violation of county code, the extent of the violation and the appropriate action required.

“Our code compliance abilities have been severely constrained over the last ten years, when we did not have a dedicated, funded person in that line of business,” said Patty Charnas, director of DCD. “We are pleased that this year we get to reinvigorate the code compliance, but that’s taking time.”

Murdock currently has 350 open code compliance cases on her docket. Her job is to process and purge years of old complaints.

“The top priority at this time is to work my way through the current case backlog and create a robust complaint intake system,” Murdock said. “Right now, I am still quite busy just learning basic Jefferson County Government.”

Murdock previously worked as a code enforcement officer for the City of Bothell. Before that, she was Bothell’s first ever animal control officer.

“Once my code compliance processes and procedures are complete, I look forward to doing what I do best; resolve issues,” she said. “Code compliance takes time. At this time the department is ‘reactive’ to complaints. In the future I would like to be able to be more ‘proactive’ and help citizens know about needing to get permits.”

While processing the backlog of cases, Murdock will be working on building a Code Compliance Program, which will include a compliance, education and enforcement process.

Code enforcement has been a topic of concern for citizens of Jefferson County for a long time.

Back in November, when budget discussions were taking place, citizens brought up the issue at county commissioner meetings.

“All of us pay a price when neighborhoods are allowed to fall into disrepair because of the bad acts of a person or multiple people,” said Jefferson County resident Tom Thiersch. “Yet the county lacks the will to enforce its existing regulations. That’s really a shame.”

In 2017, neighboring Clallam County approved a Department of Community Development proposal that would increase building permit fees to fund full-time and part-time code enforcement positions, thereby more than doubling its code enforcement staff.

“The county’s problems cannot be wished away,” said county resident John Tevis at a Jefferson County Board of Health meeting June 21, 2018. “Every other county in western Washington, except for Grays Harbor and Jefferson counties, has at least one code enforcement officer.”

County code enforcement helps to ensure the safety of structures and prevent environmental and public health threats.

But complying with code can be an expense for homeowners and builders, who must pay permit fees. Not only that, but understanding the county code can be complicated. Currently, DCD holds Customer Assistance Meetings, CAMs, for those who need to discuss more in-depth questions and projects. The fee for a CAM starts at $50 for a 15 to 30 minute appointment.

Meanwhile, DCD is working on updating the county’s critical areas ordinance and migrating to a new permit database in the hopes of making it easier for people to comply with the code.

“We will be gaining efficiencies,” Charnas said. “But getting there is a huge undertaking.”

For the most part, non-compliance comes from a lack of understanding. But it can also be tied to unwillingness to pay fees or to mental health issues that cause problems such as hoarding.

“In my experience however, I feel most people try to do the right thing,” Murdock said.

DCD’s main goal is to help people get into compliance with county code, Charnas said. But if a solution cannot be reached DCD will also work with the Sheriff’s Office and the county prosecutor to issue fines or even press charges.

“Having a code compliance enforcement also allows for better cost recovery,” Charnas said. “Which can also act as a deterrent for not complying in the first place.”

To learn more about Jefferson County code and permit procedures, or to make a code compliance complaint, visit co.jefferson.wa.us/260/Community-Development.

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