Health fees face an increase

The cost of everything from restaurant permits to septic pumper licenses likely will go up next year, if the Island County Board of Health on Monday approves an across-the-board fee increase for Environmental Health public services.

Acting on a directive from the board of commissioners to become an entirely fee-supported department, Environmental Health officials are pitching a new fee schedule that raises all licensing and permitting costs by 8.7 percent for 2003. The proposed increase would take effect Jan. 1 if approved by the board next week.

According to Keith Higman, environmental health director, the bump in fees for 2003 will make the department a self-sufficient department within the larger Department of Health and is also intended to offset the impending increase in employee health insurance costs as well as a general cost-of-living pay scale increase.

The 8.7 percent increase was arrived at by calculating the amount of additional revenues needed to square next year’s budget, though Higman added that it’s not certain the increase will completely cover expenses.

“It is an educated guess,” Higman said of hopes that the 8.7 percent increase in fees will generate enough revenues to make the department self supporting. Because many permitting fees are linked to building activity, or starts, within the county, any dramatic decrease in new housing construction could result in a budgetary shortfall, Higman said.

If the Island County Commissioners acting as the Board of Health approve the fee hike Monday, it’s a done deal, Higman said.

Should the 8.7 percent fee increase be approved, the cost of a short plat review, for example, would rise from $444 to $483; a septic pumpers license would climb from $138 to $150; espresso stand permits from $162 to $176.

Environmental health fee and permitting revenues are lumped into the county’s public health pooling fund, Higman added, which is used to develop the budget for the entire health department. “We budget internally, although our controls are established by the board,” Higman said.

In the past, the department has received a relatively small chunk of funding from the county’s current expense budget, which along with revenues generated from fee-driven programs helped balance the department’s annual budget.

However, even when receiving current expense funding, environmental health has found it necessary at times to increase fees to offset more general cost increases. Just last year EH fees went up 7.5 percent on average. Prior to 2001, the last time fees went up in the health department was when a 6 percent across-the-board increase was approved in 1997.

“Over the years, we have moved closer and closer to being 100 percent fee supported,” Higman said, adding that past current expense funding was “a drop in the bucket compared to the overall county budget.”

Higman said there are two downsides in particular to going to making his a fee-supported department. The first is the possibility, already noted, that the local economy will drop off further, causing a potential downturn in new housing starts. In this scenario, what Higman called the “unreliability of revenue” could cause a shortfall in environmental health’s projected budget.

“This is an issue related to the economic environment around the county,” Higman said.

The other concern, Higman said, is that having a program supported solely by permits and grants makes it difficult to move outside proscribed arenas of activity. “Our ability to conduct investigations that don’t have anything to do with permits and grants is severely curtailed,” he said.

“We lose some flexibility in the types of services and programs that we can provide,” Higman added.

Despite this possible loss of flexibility, Higman said he feels the department will continue to keep pace with the health needs of the county and its citizens. “We try to be creative as possible,” he said, “trying to recognize the needs of the community while at the same time offering services for permits and grants that provide our budget.”

Higman said the new fee schedule “will result in no decrease in the level of service we provide,” adding that unlike other county departments no environmental health positions are being eliminated next year. “I think the level of service we provide is good,” he said.

Although it’s been difficult to continue providing a constant level of health services in the context of a shrinking county budget, Higman said he feels health officials have found a good balance between cutting costs and doing their job.

“I think we’ve done as good a job as we can do to become as lean as we can to operate sufficiently,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how the public will react to the potential increase in service fees.

“Will it be palatable? We’ll just have to wait and see,” Higman said, adding that if the public supports the health department, then the fees are justified.

“I think the general public recognizes that the cost of goods and services is rising,” Higman said.

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