Island County considers utility bill

Utility bills could be in Island County homeowners’ future.

At least that’s one possibility as the county continues the process of deciding how best to fund a program outlining the inspection of residential septic systems.

An Island County Board of Health on-site septic systems workshop continued Monday to discuss regulation development.

The Island County Health Department is required by the state to develop a septic operations and maintenance plan and put it in place before July 1.

Keith Higman, county environmental health director, revealed a risk-based delineation of county areas in which septic systems are used. Only Penn Cove and Holmes Harbor were tagged as “high risk” areas.

“Any area where there are (septic systems) operating there is a risk,” Higman said.

The board has been tasked with determining who is qualified to inspect sewage systems. The group decided that homeowners with the proper training should be able to inspect their own conventional systems, even in the high risk areas.

Conventional systems would need to be checked every three years and pressure distribution systems every year.

Professionals would have to inspect alternative systems every year.

An estimated budget for the new inspection program has been set at $320,000, which would fund three additional full-time employees, education, operations and vehicles. The money would not pay for compliance incentives, low income assistance or bill collection.

Setting a utility rate for septic system owners was one option for financing the program. County Commissioner Mac McDowell said compliance, at least in the first year, would be an issue. He recommended funding the program with money from the county current expense account.

Commissioner Mike Shelton said the county enjoys a “robust economy” now, but in the future could face fiscal woes. He instead supported establishing a utility fee and sending bills out with property taxes.

McDowell said the county could always switch to a billing system if the economy took a downturn in the future.

“It costs a lot of money to collect money,” McDowell said of bill collection.

Tim McDonald, Island County Health Department director, supported funding the program with county dollars initially.

“It certainly makes a lot of sense, at least in a startup mode,” he said.

In addition to funding decisions, the board is weighing its options on how to achieve compliance. Commissioner John Dean said if penalties are imposed, he is a proponent of informing the public well in advance, possibly years before.

Incentives are an option for achieving compliance, as are assurances, which could include proof of inspection prior to the transfer or sale of a property or proof of inspection before any other permits are issued.

The board will discuss a proposed protocol for noncompliance at the next septic system workshop on May 1.

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