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Growing Case Backlog Requires Re-prioritization of Code Enforcement Resources

Published November 14, 2023

The Code Enforcement Section (Code Enforcement) of the Department of Local Services has not taken the steps necessary to prioritize cases that pose significant safety and environmental risks to King County. As a result, its case backlog continues to grow. Although Code Enforcement has new plans to improve its efficiency, gaps in communication, lack of reliable data, and outstanding revisions to King County Code hinder performance. We make recommendations focused on prioritization, streamlining enforcement processes, data and management, communication with property owners, and collaboration across agencies that will improve Code Enforcement’s efficiency and effectiveness. King County’s anticipated general fund shortfall means it is unlikely Code Enforcement will receive additional resources to confront its rising backlog of cases, increasing the necessity of implementing our recommendations.

Audit Highlights

The Code Enforcement Section (Code Enforcement) of the Department of Local Services has not developed policies that focus its limited resources on violations that pose the greatest risk to the safety of King County residents and the preservation of the environment. As a result, the case backlog continues to grow while some high-priority cases remain unresolved. Code Enforcement managers recently developed a plan to reduce workload by simplifying prioritization criteria and taking an education-only approach for the lowest risk cases. They began implementing the plan in mid-2023. We found additional opportunities for Code Enforcement to collaborate with county ecologists to further refine prioritization criteria to support the County’s environmental goals.

Unclear letters to property owners and missing or limited code information on county web pages led to questions and concerns from both complainants and property owners that further strain Code Enforcement’s capacity. In addition, current data systems and practices do not facilitate case or program management.

Of the 15 recommendations provided in prior Code Enforcement evaluations, the section made progress on implementing about half but did not see significant gains in efficiency or effectiveness. This was, in part, because managers did not act boldly enough to streamline processes and reduce workload and partly because the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of staff able to process violations that require a permit to remediate.

We make recommendations to improve Code Enforcement’s efficiency and effectiveness, including prioritizing its work, simplifying communications, improving data quality while reducing the burden of data entry, and updating county code to clarify unclear and inconsistent land use regulations.

Code Enforcement plays a vital role in keeping King County residents safe and the environment healthy, but the agency is struggling with a growing case backlog. Almost a third of cases opened between 2015 and 2022 are high risk, meaning there is high likelihood that code violations are threatening public safety or causing environmental damage.

The current general fund shortfall means that Code Enforcement is unlikely to receive any additional staff or resources, meaning the agency will have to handle its expanding backlog with existing (and potentially diminishing) resources.

Three evaluations conducted between 2015 and 2019 made recommendations for process improvements. The County Council required a report from Code Enforcement on recommendation status and proposing code changes by fall 2024. Managers told us that they are hoping this audit provides guidance to inform their response.

Audit Team

Audit Team

Basil Hariri, Luc Poon, Sydney Romero, and Ben Thompson worked on 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 at