It's unusual for the government to say it has more money than it needs and give some of it back, but that's exactly what the county plans to do, King County Executive Ron Sims...

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It’s unusual for the government to say it has more money than it needs and give some of it back, but that’s exactly what the county plans to do, King County Executive Ron Sims announced yesterday.

The county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) will refund about $2 million to more than 6,000 people who paid too much for building permits in 2004.

An increase in permit fees at the beginning of the year, combined with efforts to reduce the department’s costs, meant the department collected more money than it needed.

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The county also plans to reduce building-permit fees to pre-2004 levels.

“Our philosophy is to never ask for more than we need, and never keep more than we use,” Sims said at a news conference with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties in Bellevue.

The refunds apply only to people who built or remodeled in unincorporated King County.

People who built a single-family home will get an average of $630 back.

Their initial fees ranged from an average of $2,000 for developers building a basic, 2,000-square-foot home to an average of $4,653 for a person constructing a 2,500-square-foot custom home.

People who remodeled their homes will receive an average of $131. Those who did commercial construction will get an average of $1,076 back.

The refunds will be sent to people by mail in the first half of 2005.

Peter Orser, president of both the Master Builders Association and Quadrant Homes, said he’s not skeptical about the county’s explanation for the refund, or angry that the money didn’t remain in the pockets of his association’s members.

His company built almost 300 homes this year, and he estimated Quadrant will receive about $150,000 back from the county. But he said he’s just pleased that there’s a chance to be reimbursed.

“Builders recognize the strange ways that the market ebbs and flows,” he said. “No one can really predict what it’s going to be like, and this year it looks like we built more houses than we ever dreamed.”

A year and a half ago, an analysis done by the county predicted that it would need to increase permit fees in 2004 to keep up with its costs.

Paula Adams, DDES spokeswoman, said the amount of the increase varied depending on the type of permit a person purchased. The department, like most building departments, uses a standardized table to determine the cost of a permit, depending on the type of building and its size.

For example, Adams said the department charged 100 percent of the number listed on that table for building-inspection fees.

Previously it had charged 70 percent of that number.

A combination of factors caused the surplus of cash.

Interest rates stayed historically low, and the demand for housing remained constant, spurring construction in King County.

At the same time, the department streamlined many of its operations, such as shortening the time period for receiving a permit, and assigning project managers to alert people early about problems with their permits.

Stephanie Warden, DDES director, said yesterday that those efficiencies saved the department money.

The department has already processed 7,000 building and land-use permits this year, and it anticipates completing another 500 by the end of the year.

Kelly Kearsley: 206-464-2112 or kkearsley@seattletimes.com