Clallam County health board hears objections to proposed septic fee

Officials to discuss proposal again at Sept. 17 meeting

Septic tank owners told the Clallam County Board of Health last week that a proposed $13-per-year fee feels more like a tax that penalizes law-abiding citizens.

The intent of the fee is to provide sustainable funding for the county’s septic system management program — a program historically funded by grants and that is mandated by the state — but some questioned why the approximately 25 percent of septic tank owners who pay $150 or more each year for inspections need to pay another fee.

Officials have made the legal distinction that what is being proposed is a fee to cover the costs of the program — not a tax.

“You can call it a tax or a fee, but if it’s coming with my property tax bill, it’s a tax,” Ed Watson said. “I don’t care how you slice it.”

Watson and others questioned whether there is another alternative for funding the program.

He asked why there aren’t penalties for the 75 percent of septic tank owners who are not having their systems inspected as required.

Jenne LaBrecque, chair of the Board of Health, said all comments would be compiled together and that the board would discuss the proposal again the next time the board meets, which is 1:30 p.m. Sept. 17.

Not all who attended were against the fee.

Heather Cerutti, whose family owns Acme Septic Pumping and Portable Toilets, said the county’s program helps her business know whether customers are compliant.

She said she encourages people to have regular inspections so that they can avoid problems with their septic systems and so that they can save money by not having their systems unnecessarily pumped.

This issue is very important to us,” she said. “It helps us with our job.”

Cerutti said if the grants that have funded the program dry up, she doesn’t know where else the money could come from.

“When I heard that we were talking about and considering a fee I was in favor of it,” she said. “We’re talking about $1.67 a month.”

John Earhart said he already pays $150 annually to have a private company inspect his septic tank and he doesn’t know why a portion of that can’t go to the county.

He asked what is being done to address the septic systems that are out of compliance.

“Are we going to penalize the people who are in compliance to pay for the ones out of compliance?” he asked.

Clallam County Environmental Health is tasked with requiring regular septic inspections, ensuring known septic failures are fixed and maintaining accurate records for all septic systems, but the department has not had sustainable funding to make that happen.

The county adopted its on-site septic system management plan in 2007 to address those requirements, but it has never fully funded implementation.

The board is considering eliminating the $159 septic contract plan review fee and system status report review fees. Those cuts would be a combined $34,000.

During the past 13 years, the program has operated on an average of $176,000 in grant funding per year.

The fee — which would generate $260,000 annually — would cover costs of outreach, training, testing and 2.5 staff positions.

If approved, the fee schedule changes would take effect in 2021 and Environmental Health would use current grant funding — about $300,000 — to refine the on-site septic management program and prepare for a transition to stable, local funding, officials said.

During the nearly hour-and-a-half-long public hearing last week, some suggested the county could collect the fee when people have their systems inspected.

Seventy-five percent of septic system owners are out of compliance, according to county records.

“One of the biggest challenges is people aren’t getting inspected, so if we’re are only attaching it to the inspection fee than that is an incentive not to get one,” said Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank.

There are about 20,000 septic systems in Clallam County and since 2007 about 700 of those systems have failed.

Of those, 600 septic systems have been repaired.

Officials said that finances are among the reasons some don’t have their septic systems inspected regularly, leading to failures and high costs that could have been prevented.

Commissioner Bill Peach expressed concern for low-income people who can’t afford necessary repairs and suggested the county could use general fund money to fix the biggest problems.

“I’m just trying to be proactive,” Peach said.

Low-interest loans are available to help people address failing septic systems, but officials said there are some who can’t afford even those.

Commissioner Mark Ozias compared Peach’s suggestion to the county’s abatement fund, which is used to help people haul away garbage when doing so would benefit the entire neighborhood.

“There is certainly some logic behind considering whether it is possible to expand that fund in such a way we might be able to make more progress on the most significant environmental challenges,” Ozias said.

“I’m going to try to follow up on that to see what our options might be.”

Commissioner Randy Johnson said he disagreed. His view is that the county needs to think about where it puts its money, which he described as a “scarce resource.”

“Is that really the first place I’d go? Probably not,” he said. “There has to be a methodology.”

Officials generally agreed if a fund is created out of general fund money, that there would need to be a priority list and that the worst cases would be addressed first.

“The general question is how flexible can we be without crossing the line of providing benefit to an individual in an inappropriate way,” Ozias said. “I think it’s worth more exploration.”