In their role as the Board of Health, the Thurston County Commissioners voted 2-1 on Friday to adopt a new annual flat-rate fee of $10 for property owners with septic systems.
The fee applies countywide for all properties that use septic systems, even those within the city limits of Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater, according to county spokeswoman Meghan Porter. The only exception: the new fee won’t be charged to properties in the Henderson Inlet and Nisqually Reach areas that already are subject to shellfish protection district septic system rates, she said.
Commissioner Cathy Wolfe and Commissioner Sandra Romero voted in favor of the fee, and Commissioner Bud Blake against it. The fee is $10 for septic systems at single-family homes, and begins Jan. 1, 2018. Septic systems for multi-family buildings such as duplexes and apartment houses will be charged $10 per housing unit.
The fee will show up on property tax statements, and will be adjusted by the Consumer Price Index each year after, with a maximum annual increase of 3.5 percent, according to an agenda item summary provided to the Board of Health.
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People enrolled in the county’s senior/disabled property tax exemption program would be charged half the rate.
On Dec. 6, about 100 people attended a public hearing on the fees, which had originally been proposed in a tiered structure, ranging from $19 to $57, depending on the area of the county in which the home was located. That tiered structure included fees lower than the ones that had been proposed earlier in the year.
Some residents at the hearing said the fees were too costly, especially for older residents and families who live in poverty. Some contended the plan wasn’t based on science. Others said it was an unconstitutional tax, and criticized the county’s plan to hire more staff to help implement the changes.
After the hearing, the County Commission directed staff to look at other options that could lower the fee to a flat rate of $10 a year, according to Art Starry, director of the county’s Environmental Health Division.
The $10 fee won’t eliminate some of the existing fees that would have been done away with in the tiered structure, such as the time of transfer, septic tank reports and operational certificate renewals, Starry said.
The money will be used to improve the county’s electronic database system, monitor water quality and fund a countywide education program, he said.
The new charges are expected to bring in about $394,000 a year, versus $748,455 a year under the tiered-fee structure. It will fund about 3.75 full-time equivalent positions, instead of 6.25 FTEs to operate the program, according to a document Starry prepared for the Board of Health.
The tiered structure would have affected about 53,000 properties and included shellfish protected districts; the $10 fee will affect about 42,000 properties, Starry said.
“I think in listening to the public they made a case that this was not very clear, and they thought it was a little too high, too fast, so in light of that I’m happy to slow it down a little bit and change the fee so it is clear for the public,” Wolfe said before voting. “…In the long run, it will still help us to improve the water quality in Thurston County.”
Romero said the county’s on-site sewage plan has been something the board has worked on since she took office eight years ago. She said the plan was put together in partnership with all of the incorporated cities, and a stakeholder group that included shellfish growers, builders and neighborhood associations.
“When you have a county with the second highest number of septic systems in the entire state and we don’t have a countywide significant management plan, we’re in for future problems,” Romero said.
Blake said he is concerned about water quality, but there has been “a huge inconsistency” in the information that has been presented to the Board of Health on the septic management plan’s scope, numbers and costs. He voted against adopting the plan last month, stating that while he believes in water and septic quality, he didn’t believe the plan was “necessary right now, and the county’s business.”
“I’m not sure we’re going to actually achieve the desired impact that this Board of Health is responsible for doing, so I do have some concerns with it in the way it’s progressing and moving forward,” he said.