Delays: Raising fees hoped to help reduce county’s well, septic inspection backlog
Matt Dennis had hoped to be a resident of Allegan County by now.
In June, he and his family of five sold their home in Kalamazoo County, expecting to camp for a couple months over the summer while they bought and then moved into a new house.
They found one in Otsego Township. That was July; they have been ready to buy it for weeks, and the seller is ready too.
“As far as I understand it, the only thing holding it up is the septic system inspection,” he said.
He was one of many to speak at a planning meeting for the Allegan County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Aug. 24. The Allegan County Health Department presented commissioners a review of their ability to meet the current demand for services; area realtors and contractors spoke up to say it takes too long for the department to respond and issue permits.
Dennis doesn’t know when the seller first contacted the health department to request an inspection, but he does know that school is starting soon.
“From my standpoint, it was just frustrating because every time we asked the question, (the seller) would tell us ‘Well we haven’t heard yet, we made another phone, sent another email,’” he said. “As a buyer, I thought we’d be beyond this.”
He has three children, two in elementary school and one starting middle school.
“We’ve been camping all summer long. We’ve had a blast; it’s been a great adventure. But the idea was to camp for a while until we figured this out; you know, do the paint and stuff you do to a home when you purchase it,” Dennis said. “And that’s our big concern right now. Anything we’d want to do to the home is kind of put on hold.”
Angelique Joynes, health officer for the health department, said the demand for environmental health field services—things like inspecting septic systems and wells and issuing soil erosion control permits—was outstripping the ability of the current staff to keep up.
Environmental health is budgeted for one half-time and three full-time sanitarians to collectively complete an average of 252 services per month. As of Aug. 11, the total number of services the department is required to do and is requested to do so far this year averages to 377 per month.
To even do as much as they are doing right now, each employee is working eight hours of mandatory overtime.
“And nobody is getting any (paid time off) or sick time,” she said.
Some of that gap is resulting in a backlog; the rest is made up of tasks the department simply isn’t doing as required. That includes mainly tasks such as some monthly soil erosion inspections as well as those following heavy rains. It also includes time saving measures for well and septic final inspections.
“That’s not happening the way it should be,” she said.
The shortfall has become evident in recent years as the department’s response time has slipped. In 2016, they set a goal of completing any given service within 21 days.
They’ve struggled to meet even that, however. Joynes said this year they have met that goal between 69 and 88 percent of the time each month.
“We know there are customers who want it faster,” she said.
Some of those customers said as much.
Allegan realtor Cheri Schulz said loan evaluations on hold for multiple weeks tangle up closings.
“I think the sanitarians are doing the best they can with the resources they have, but this holds up deals,” she said.
Another in the audience said underwriters typically provide interest rates that are only good for 45 days; waiting even 21 days for the health department to sign off on a septic system inspection was unacceptable.
Schulz encouraged the county to stop offering the service.
“The backlog has been evident for the last six months to a year. I didn’t realize until recently that health departments don’t have to do mortgage evaluations (septic system inspections),” she said. “Yes, having a private company do them will be more costly, but they’ll get them out within a few days.”
Chad Kraai owns a well drilling company in Shelbyville and works in a five-county region. He said the county should increase staff and charge more for permit fees. He also liked that the county was an impartial source for inspections; private companies would be more likely to err on the side of their customers.
“You guys need to do something,” Kraai said. “I just bought a $675,000 piece of drilling equipment and it’s sitting (while a job awaits a permit). Raise rates; my customers will pay more for faster service.”
Kraai and a building contractor both said the turnaround time needed to be within five to 10 days.
The reasons behind the current situation are various.
County administrator Rob Sarro said, “The problem didn’t hit all at once.”
He said demand for the services has increased without a commensurate increase in the county’s tax base, and thus its revenue. He also said administration did not have solid numbers to say definitively what was happening, and that took time.
“So to say we knew exactly what was going on—it was a little more subjective than that,” Sarro said. “Now that we’re tracking the data, we’re starting to see that’s true.”
Crucially, Environmental Health Services manager Randy Rapp said one of their sanitarians resigned in June. Ben Williams then shifted from recycling coordinator to fill his spot. Rapp, Joynes and Williams have filled in as needed to keep up with the as-yet vacant recycling position. Another sanitarian went on medical leave four weeks ago.
Rapp said the county added a half-time sanitarian last year to help deal with the increase in service. As the problem grew, they began the aforementioned monitoring of how much time each task was taking to try to identify the problem; that effort, which took time away from actually providing services, produced the numbers on display at the meeting.
They’ve also streamlined their process where possible. Online, a link on Allegan County’s home page takes customers directly to downloadable permit applications. There is also an example site plan and application checklists.
Joynes said they have sought feedback from customers and also met with state regulators to ensure employees are properly interpreting ordinances. The department created a tracking tool to help make sure employees make calls to customers if 14 days elapse without contact; they’ve also prioritized shorter tasks such as well repair permits to reduce the backlog.
Sarro said ultimately those measures have demonstrably improved the department’s situation.
“Just based on improving our ability to monitor the metrics. Even with loss of (one employee), and arguably maybe a diminished demand from last 30 to 60 days, but the fact remains we went from (a backlog of unresolved services) of 149 services to 49 services in literally three months,” he said.
Commissioners informally assented to voting on new fee rates at their Sept. 14 meeting.
In addition to that, Rapp said new software could help the department be more efficient.
“I have worked at a few other health departments,” Rapp said. “I’ve never seen a group a of people work so hard. And they are getting tired.
“We’ve been implementing new things, we’ve been documenting our processes; we’re always trying to do things better.”
At some point, he said, the workload simply exceeds the available work hours.
Rapp said, “We have to work within the parameters of Allegan County; we’re not like a private business. We have to get hiring approved through the budget process and the board.”
He thinks it is time to raise fees to provide funding for more staff.
“We’re on the low side,” he said. “We’ve kept track of how long it takes us to do a service, so when we were at where we need to increase fees, we’ll have a good time study to make it happen.”
Commission Chair Dean Kapenga thanked the business people for attending and commenting and the health department team for their hard work.
Commissioner Max Thiele cautioned that fee increases might not be able to solve the problem.
“There’s a serious consideration that we’re not going to be able to raise fees high enough to be able to provide a solution,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s the case; it’s just a consideration. It’s not a panacea itself.”
During the board’s afternoon meeting, Commissioner Gale Dugan suggested the county shift clerical staff internally to help.
“Short term needs—it’s great to have time and to start budgeting for an increase in staff so we can maintain a level of service that’s acceptable to everyone,” Dugan said. “But right now, if we were to put some clerical staff in there and leave the sanitarians to do what they were trained to do. And let qualified clerical person or two catch them up on their paperwork... would be the most cost effective, right-now approach of getting this backlog taken care of.
Sarro agreed that would work better than hiring new office help, as it was part of the county’s goals to cross-train employees. He was also pleased that the quality of the department’s work was still highly regarded by those who spoke at the meeting.
Sarro warned against adding too many employees to address the backlog and improve the response time.
“We can get just as much off track by setting fees beyond what is maybe considered reasonable or by hiring so many only to then lay off great people just when they’re getting up to speed,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a balance.”
“We’re committed to a multi-pronged approach.”
As for Dennis, a sanitarian visited the home the afternoon of the meeting and wrote the septic permit the next day. Joynes said it required a variance, so it was scheduled to be completed Monday. That should clear the way for his family camping adventure to end and his new house adventure to begin.
Contact Ryan Lewis at email@example.com or (269) 673-5534.