KC Auditors report code enforcement backlog poses safety, environmental risks

Auditors say code enforcement office needs to prioritize riskiest cases, allow discretion for others

King County’s Code Enforcement office has a growing case backlog that poses significant safety and environmental risks in certain cases, according to a report released on Nov. 14 by the King County Auditor’s Office.

According to the King County Auditor’s Office, the backlog has been an issue highlighted in previous internal and external evaluations, but has persisted in part, at least, due to lack of effective enforcement processes to prioritize the riskiest cases, inefficient data systems, and lack of guidance to staff on how to use these systems.

“As funding for some county services becomes more constrained, entities like Code Enforcement will need to make very difficult decisions about what to prioritize and find ways to make processes as efficient as possible,” King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson said. “We are pleased that Code Enforcement has begun taking steps toward these goals.”

Key findings and recommendations from the report included:

– Code Enforcement has a significant and growing backlog of cases to investigate. Cases take 7-months on average to resolve, although actual time varies a great deal and some cases take years to resolve. Backlog is important because there is a significant relationship between the time it takes to resolve code violations and the cumulative damage incurred by the violations.

– Code Enforcement has not taken the steps necessary to prioritize cases within their limited capacity, allowing significant safety and environmental risks to persist. Management has tried several times to develop processes to prioritize cases, but they have not limited caseloads to the highest priority work.

– Communication with property owners is confusing and leads to additional questions and slower compliance.

– Inefficient data systems and lack of guidance to staff about how to use these systems complicates effective management, such as identifying steps necessary to reduce backlog or evaluate effectiveness.

– Code Enforcement is general fund-backed, therefore, it is unlikely they will be able to address challenges by adding additional resources

To deal with the growing backlog the King County Auditor’s Office recommended three key steps:

– Improve prioritization so they focus on the riskiest cases.

– Improve communication so they can facilitate compliance and reduce unnecessary work communicating with complaints and property owners.

– Improve the data and systems available for management and staff to identify ways to improve the process and to measure effectiveness and efficiency.

The King County Auditor’s Office noted that previous internal and external evaluations have come to similar findings and recommendations; however, Code Enforcement has not found ways to implement them effectively within its resource constraints.

In response to a Council budget provision, Code Enforcement is in the process of proposing a set of code changes to Title 23 that address both our recommendations and prior ones. They anticipate providing this proposal to KCC in September 2024.