Politics & Government

New board takes hard look at Thurston County’s new septic fee

From left: John Hutchings, Bud Blake and Gary Edwards, make up Thurston County’s all politically independent Board of County Commissioner and Board of Health.
From left: John Hutchings, Bud Blake and Gary Edwards, make up Thurston County’s all politically independent Board of County Commissioner and Board of Health. sbloom@theolympian.com

A newly adopted and controversial plan that includes a $10 annual fee for about 42,000 Thurston County property owners with septic systems could soon be going down the drain.

Interim county manager Ramiro Chavez said the Board of County Commissioners recently held a briefing with health staff members about the on-site sewer system management plan.

“As a result, the commissioners had additional questions that staff needed to research the answers,” Chavez said.

Board of Health and Board of County Commissioners chairman Bud Blake said he and his seatmates asked health staff to get more information on several “data points,” such as septic failure rates and how other counties are making state-required updates to their septic system management plans.

Blake said all the commissioners believe safe and healthy septic systems are important, but they want to make sure they have enough information before they move forward, make changes or possibly repeal the plan.

“We just believe in putting the right dollars at the right place at the right time,” he said.

The commissioners could receive answers to their questions as early as Thursday, Blake said.

Newly elected county commissioners John Hutchings and Gary Edwards campaigned against the septic plan, saying they would work to repeal the fee.

The septic plan took several years to develop and was championed by their predecessors, Cathy Wolfe and Sandra Romero, as a way to keep drinking water safe.

Blake voted against the adoption of the plan and the fee, saying he supported clean water and healthy septic systems, but he didn’t believe major changes and a fee were necessary.

The fee applies countywide for all properties that use septic systems, even those within Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater, county spokeswoman Meghan Porter said. 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.

As it stands, the fee is $10 for septic systems at single-family homes, and begins Jan. 1, 2018. Septic systems for multifamily buildings, such as duplexes and apartment houses will be charged $10 per housing unit.

The fee would be used to pay for more staff to monitor compliance, provide outreach and implement other parts of the plan, county officials say.

About 100 people attended a public hearing in December, and an overwhelming majority of the 40 or so speakers expressed opposition to the fee. Some people who spoke in support of the fee said they believe it would help protect drinking water and Puget Sound from failing septic systems.

In addition, the county received 62 written comments on the fee: 43 were against, 14 were in favor and five listed specific concerns about the plan, said Art Starry, interim director of the county Public Health and Social Services.

After years of being controlled by Democrats, Thurston County is now led by an all politically independent commission, and they’ve promised to shake up county government.

One of the first actions after Hutchings and Edwards took office Jan. 3 was to ask for the resignation of Tom Stuebner, director of Public Health and Social Services. He was hired about a year ago after a national search.

Blake told The Olympian that the commissioners want to take the department in a new direction and are “looking for a person to take that role.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton