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The Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) has a substantial backlog of residential permit applications waiting for review and often does not meet statutory time limits. The number of applications has increased since 2014, and DPER responded by hiring third-party contractors to handle a part of the extra work. While this strategy has helped reduce its backlog, DPER needs to do more to improve efficiency and timeliness. For instance, DPER lacks consistent performance standards for its staff and does not effectively track timeliness of applications, which could help it meet its statutory time limits and improve customer service.

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DPER is responsible for issuing building permits for properties in unincorporated King County, including for residential homes. Long permitting delays can seriously impact home builders, sometimes delaying construction for years. Not receiving a permit in time can even jeopardize whether the project is built at all. In turn, this can impact the amount of property tax the county collects, since levy increases are tied to new construction in unincorporated King County. Further, permitting delays damage King County’s reputation and reflect poorly on its ability to provide an essential government service.

Because of increased volume and complexity of residential building permit applications, DPER accumulated a large backlog of permit applications for custom residential projects. In 2016, 70 percent of these applicants waited more than 120 days (four months) to receive a decision. These long permit review timelines exceed limits in state statute and county ordinance, and DPER cannot demonstrate that any exception applies. DPER began to use contractors to help manage workload in 2016, which could significantly reduce the backlog of permits waiting for review.

However, DPER’s lack of standards for how long reviews should take results in duplication of efforts and limits accountability. Without these standards, DPER cannot analyze its capacity or productivity. This means managers are unable to allocate workload for greatest efficiency, further delaying permits for customers. In addition, we found that nearly half of DPER staff has not received a performance review for the past three years, a factor that further undermines accountability.

We recommend that DPER comply with state and county laws regulating permit review timelines and communication. We also recommend that DPER set standards to improve consistency, accountability, and efficiency. Finally, DPER should ensure that annual performance reviews are conducted as required by King County Personnel Guidelines.

Reports related to this audit

Follow up work is in progress. A report will be available as soon as it is complete.

Audit team

Peter Heineccius, Laina Poon, and Ben Thompson conducted this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email