Commissioners approve flat fee for septic owners

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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With the new year will come a new county septic system fee structure.

Beginning in January, Clark County septic system owners will no longer pay county inspection and tipping fees. Instead, the approximately 34,000 septic owners in the county will see an annual fee of $16.50 added to their property taxes in the spring.

The Clark County Commissioners, serving in their role as the board of health, on Wednesday morning approved an ordinance to replace the two county fees with one flat fee. The decision came after a discussion and public hearing that lasted about an hour and a half.

Under the multiple-fee structure, the county charged a $20 electronic reporting fee for inspections and a tipping fee of 6 cents per gallon of liquid pumped. Depending on the type of septic system, inspections are required every one, two or three years. Septic tanks are typically pumped every three to five years.

On average, the new flat fee system will reduce the annual cost to residents, said Marni Storey, deputy director of Clark County Public Health. The new fee does not cover the cost of the actual inspection or tipping by contractors.

The fee revenue funds a county “operations and maintenance” program. The program offers guidance for residents who need to repair their systems or have questions about the inspection process. Program employees also field complaints and conduct performance audits of private pumpers, inspectors and installers. State law requires the county program.

Spreading cost

The program costs $527,530 to operate. The multiple-fee structure left a $216,000 funding hole. The flat fee will generate $543,364 by spreading the cost to all septic owners, as opposed to only those who are complying with the inspection requirements, Storey said.

While inspections are required, the county asks for voluntary compliance with the inspection schedule. The county sends inspection reminders but typically only pursues enforcement action against owners of septic systems with significant issues, Storey said.

Several residents who testified during Wednesday’s public hearing voiced support for tougher enforcement rather than an across-the-board fee.

“I would rather see some enforcement done to make those people that aren’t being responsible do their part,” resident Marsha Hays said.

Hays said an annual $16.50 fee means she will likely pay more over the long term because her system is well maintained and doesn’t need pumping often. Commissioner Marc Boldt said he also has a well-maintained system and will likely have to pay more.

Commissioner Steve Stuart pointed out that the costs for septic owners could be much higher. Several years ago, the county received waivers from the state that allow some systems to be inspected every two or three years as opposed to every year as required by state law. The waivers mean savings for owners of those systems, Stuart said.

“This is a way to try and get better compliance and lower the cost for those folks who are complying,” Stuart said.

Stuart and Boldt voted in favor of the ordinance. Commissioner Tom Mielke, after voicing what appeared to be support, said he was voting against the change.

“I’ve seen a great improvement. We’ve come a long ways,” Mielke said. “I won’t be supporting it because I want to keep working on other improvements to our septic program, but I support the work we’ve done.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.