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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Feb. 22, 2024

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Clark County public health fees will increase this year — but how much?

Council tentatively opts to set costs using model established in 2021

By , Columbian staff writer

Clark County’s environmental public health fees will be going up again this year. The question is, by how much? The Clark County Council reviewed proposed fee changes and made a tentative decision at an Aug. 2 work session.

Jeff Harbison, administrative services director for Public Health, presented three options to the council. Environmental public health fees include onsite septic permitting, reviewing well applications, solid waste permits, food establishment permits, pool or spa review and many others.

Each year the department reviews its expenses and sets fees, with the council’s approval, to reach a balanced budget, Harbison said.

A change to the fee structure occurred in 2010 when the county Board of Health decided not to include “greater good” costs, work that is performed by Public Health that is not related to licenses, permits or fees, in the fees collected. Expenses from greater good activities were instead covered from the general fund. Examples of greater good activities include investigating complaints about residential waste, sewage backups, unsafe food handlers or investigating outbreaks of food-borne or water-borne illnesses.

Fees typically have been adjusted each year, although no adjustments were made in 2012 or 2016, Harbison said. During the 2017-18 budget process, the fees were adjusted by an average of 1.35 percent. In 2019, the overall fee adjustment was 29.13 percent. The council also adopted a policy to begin moving back toward 100 percent cost recovery and away from the general fund.

“It was a journey because the greater good represents quite a bit of work,” Harbison said.

Fees increased 14.32 percent in 2020, 9.14 percent in 2021 and 3.19 percent in 2022.

This year, the council approved a 100 percent cost-recovery model for all programs except drinking water safety and onsite septic permitting, which are set at 90 percent cost recovery. Harbison said an exception was made for the two programs to allow for economic downturns.

“Those two programs are impacted heavily by construction activities. So when the economy dips, those programs feel it more than other programs,” Harbison told the council.

The first option presented to the council would set fees at the current cost-recovery model established in 2021. It would equal an overall adjustment of 5.33 percent and generate an additional $256,000 in revenue. Some programs, like school health and safety, would see a greater increase — 28.33 percent.

“That is definitely an anomaly,” Harbison said.

He said three fees related to environmental health assessments in schools established by state mandate three years ago have been subsidized by state funding. But now that state funding is ending, the fees are going up.

Fees for drinking water safety and onsite septic permitting programs would decrease by 3.39 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively.

The second option would increase cost recovery for drinking water safety and onsite septic permitting to 95 percent with all others at 100 percent, for an overall increase of 6.77 percent and $310,035 in additional revenue. With this option, none of the program fees would be reduced. School health and safety would still increase by 28.33 percent.

Fees for drinking water safety and onsite septic permitting programs would increase by 1.96 percent and 0.15 percent, respectively.

Option three sets all programs at 100 percent cost recovery for an overall increase of 7.95 percent with additional revenue of $363,669. With this scenario, drinking water safety would increase by 7.34 percent and onsite septic permitting would increase by 5.43 percent.

“Our preference would be to maintain the current Board of Health policy at 90 percent cost recovery for those two programs,” Harbison told the council, referring to the first option. “It is merely to have the ability to … respond to greater good activity when the economy does start to decline.”

Harbison noted all three options include eliminating a vacant position in the two greater good programs. He noted the two programs already share staff.

“I do believe in 100 percent cost recovery whenever possible and I do believe there are moments of greater good,” Councilor Glen Yung said.

Yung asked if the department had also looked at ways to increase efficiencies to reduce costs which would, in turn, allow the county to offset some of the increases.

Harbison said Public Health does that work across all programs, not just for environmental public health programs.

The council informally voted to move forward with option one. The next step will be to bring an ordinance outlining the new fee schedule before the council in September for adoption.

To watch the full work session, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nEpCFsL7Dc.