County environmental health fees rise 8 percent

Permits issued by the Island County Health Department will cost more come next year, as county commissioners approved an across-the-board rate increase of 8 percent for all environmental health services.

The fee increase, which is the first to be enacted since 1997, was passed Monday evening, with Commissioner Mac McDowell casting a dissenting vote. Mike Shelton and Bill Thorn voted for the increase.

Environmental health services include review and permitting in such areas as food service, land use, solid waste and water systems.

Island County Health Director Tim McDonald said that every year, the Health Department balances its budget with a proposal to increase fees. Since the last increase, however, commissioners have opted instead to fund the balance of environmental services out of the county’s current expense fund, rather than raise rates for the public.

Typically, McDonald pointed out, the county is faced with three options when balancing the budget regarding environmental health services: Increase fees, decrease service or increase current expense. McDonald said that, due to current and anticipated shortfalls in the county’s revenue stream for 2002, one of those options has been eliminated.

“This year, they’re just in a bind,” McDowell said regarding the commissioners’ current budget difficulties. “They don’t have the current expense to do that.”

He added that both the board of commissioners and the Health Department decided to increase fees rather than cut services.

With voter approval of Initiative 747, there is the possibility that such a fee increase could be perceived by voters as an end run around taxing limits enacted at the ballot booth. I-747 limits property tax increases at 1 percent annually, and cuts approximately $590,000 in state funding to Island County government next year alone.

However, McDonald said that an 8 percent fee increase has been figured into the budget since early August, when the Health Department first presented commissioners with a preliminary budget. He added that “there’s no middle ground” between the options of cutting services or continuing to provide services to the public as they currently exist.

“To me it’s a pretty open and shut case,” said McDonald. “We need to figure out how to pay for the bill.”

He added: “The professionals who work in that program area are very well-trained and well-qualified. If we’re going to offer the program, we need to offer a competitive wage or else they’ll go elsewhere.”

In a Tuesday interview, Commissioner McDowell explained his “no” vote by saying feels the timing of the fee increase was inappropriate, though perhaps warranted.

“People continue to vote that they think government has gotten too expensive,” McDowell said. “If we keep somehow making do, or we keep raising dollars some other way, we’re just saying that we can’t afford to do it with our past revenue stream.

“Somewhere along the line, government has got to realize that the people have spoken. I just think at all levels we need to start downsizing government instead of continuing to raise fees,” McDowell said.

The figure of an 8 percent increase was arrived at by estimating the cost of providing fee-supported programs, and then weighing that estimate against the Health Department’s projected revenue for 2002. In this case, McDonald said, the numbers came up short.

“The 8 percent across the board was the fairest way to make up the difference,” said McDonald, who added that “in terms of inflation, it’s not bad.”

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