Construction slowdown prompts San Juan County layoffs

County officials handed out layoff notices to a pair of employees at the Community Development and Planning Department as demand for building and land-use permits hit a four-year low.

San Juan County Administrator Pete Rose on Tuesday acknowledged that permit coordinators Christopher Laws and Allen Shayo were notified that their employment at CDPD would soon end. Both were given a standard 10-day layoff notice, Rose said.

As of March 24, the date those two layoffs become effective, the department will have a single permit coordinator, Faye Chaffee.

"These are difficult times for all county departments," Rose said in a press release, circulated by the county Tuesday afternoon. "We are trying very hard to take care of our team of talented and dedicated employees, while dealing with the harsh reality that the county has no rainy day fund to fall back on."

According to CDPD Director Ron Henrickson, revenue generated by permits in the first two months of the year trails the past three-year average by 35 percent. He added that counties across Western Washington are grappling with even sharper declines in construction activity — 60 percent in some cases — and there's no sign that the situation will change for the better anytime soon.

"It is extremely difficult to lose good people," Henrickson said. "But in the face of declining revenues, we felt like we had to make a choice."

Though disheartened by news of the layoffs, members of the County Council credited Rose and Henrickson for pulling the trigger before revenues worsened and more severe cuts would be needed. Councilman Richard Fralick, Orcas West, said given the drop-off in permit activity that layoffs are an "appropriate thing to do."

"It's better that it happen sooner rather than later, and before we have to make Draconian moves," Fralick said.

The department, according to its 2009 budget, is expected to bring in $1.3 million in revenue this year. Its land-use and building branch is funded entirely by permit revenue and, according to county officials, receives no funding from the county general fund. With 24 staff positions, many of which are funded by state grants, CDPD is also home to long-range planning, code enforcement, marine resources, stormwater permitting and pollution prevention. It totaled $1.8 million in expenses in 2008.

Without the layoffs or a dramatic increase in permit applications, Rose said the department would be $110,000 to $140,000 below its revenue forecasts by the end of March. He said that Shayo and Laws' jobs are "permit-revenue supported positions." And in echoing Henrickson, he said there's no indication of a rapid turnaround.

"March has come in like a lamb," he said.

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