A survey to assess how often septic tanks should be pumped will be reworded after critics said some of the questions are none of Lewis and Clark County’s business.
The assessment form is part of a new program, now in its second year, aimed at the operation and maintenance of septic systems.
While the county has long regulated the design and installation of septic systems, this additional layer of regulation by the City-County Board of Health looks at how those systems are operating and maintained – key components to ensue septic systems work as intended and don’t create health hazards for neighboring property owners.
The new regulation has had a rough start. The online form earned a black eye from those who initially found it difficult to use. The cost to complete the required paperwork rankled some, as did the legal language at the end of the form warning of the penalty for failing to fill out the form.
While calls to scrap the process aren’t gaining traction with the Health Department, objections to the way questions are worded have caught the ear of those who manage the program.
“We are going to rewrite our forms,” said Kathy Moore, the environmental division administrator with the City-County Health Department. “We had a lot of comments on that.”
Changes, based on those criticisms, are anticipated to be in place by the end of April, Moore said.
“What we’re really trying to do is use basic questions to try and get that water use information” on septic tanks, Moore explained.
‘A work in progress’
The survey is the first of its kind in the state and, said Beth Norgberg, a registered sanitarian with the county who oversees the program, “It’s a work in progress.”
“It’s just such a new thing and we’re all in a state of learning,” Norberg added.
Public health remains the county’s top focus, as well as making sure homeowners’ septic systems last as long as they can, Norberg explained. A septic system can cost between $4,000 and $10,000.
Some of those who have come in to the county office to complain about the survey have stopped just short of threatening, Moore said. Others are unhappy but agree with the program’s goals.
Many others, however, call with questions and concerns and are thankful for the assistance they receive on filling out the form and getting the county the paperwork it needs, Norberg said.
There is an expectation that the county plays a role in ensuring septic systems work as intended. Those who sell real estate have this expectation, Moore said.
This new regulation, she added, “ensures purchasers and homeowners that when they buy a system, it’s functional and operational.”
But some homeowners disagree with the need for new regulation.
“This program divided people. They were either very supportive or they were not,” Moore said.
Choosing their words
None of the Helena Valley homeowners who spoke about their experiences with this new paperwork took issue with protecting water quality. But some of the assessment’s questions offended them. Among those that they have taken issue with are those that asked:
“Do you have three or more overnight guests at a time, or have large groups visit your house?
“Are there more people living in your home than there are bedrooms?”
“How often do you wash laundry?”
“Do you have a washing machine that conserves water? (Water-conserving top-loading washer or a front-loading washing machine?)
Depending on the responses to these and questions such as when was the last time the septic system was pumped – they have to be pumped periodically to work effectively – the age of the system and whether it serves a business in addition to a home, the Health Department assessment assigns a numeric value to the answer.
It would appear that the higher the final score, the more frequently a homeowner could be required to have the septic tank pumped.
Norberg said the questions are designed to determine how a system is actually being used in a home and said, “We don’t mean it to be an invasion of privacy.”
“That’s what that whole assessment form is geared to, how often should you pump a (septic) tank,” she explained. Those systems handling more water are under stress, she said.
How the 14 questioned are asked, and not the 18 queries about homeowners’ septic systems, is what concerns Helena Valley resident Joe Dooling.
“Every citizen has a right to privacy,” he said.
And while the Health Department can argue the questions relate to public health, he explained, “My problem is the invasive questions … that quite honestly are not of anybody’s business.”
“My biggest concern is there’s not the science behind it, they’re picking on one group and it’s not going to solve the issue” of protecting water quality, Dooling said.
John Novotny, also a Helena Valley resident, said the questions go too far for him as well.
“How many overnight guests I have and how many time I flush the toilet … there’s just real privacy problems that I have,” Novotny said
The questions are used nationally in an effort to convert technical language into more of the everyday questions that will elicit the information that the septic program wants to know: how much is a septic system being used, Norberg said.
“Those questions have all been peer reviewed in the industry,” she said.
Fee for processing
Dooling and Novotny both take issue with the $57 fee that must be paid if submitting the paperwork online. Others also say it shouldn’t be charged. Those who mail in their responses must pay $67 as a county staff person will have to convert the paper responses to the online form.
The cost has brought many complaints and questions to Norberg who explains where the money goes, how it’s used.
In addition to the $47 program fee, $10 is added to pay for the database, which she compares to the cost that’s added to an online concert ticket purchase.
The final $10 is for homeowners who don’t have access to a home or library computer to go online and it pays for someone to enter the data from the paper version of the form.
The fee is charged only when new paperwork is submitted and that happens only when the septic tank is required to be pumped. Based on the data provided in the assessment, most people are being told they need to pump their septic tanks every four or five years, Norberg said. Pumping, on average, falls into the three to five year range.
Anytime someone is forced to pay a fee to the county, it is a form of taxation, Novotny said.
“You have to pay it, it’s a tax,” he added.
“It just feels like it’s a tax that’s being passed and they don’t have the authority to pass a tax,” Novotny continued of the health board.
State law, Norberg said, does give boards of health the authority to regulate sewage disposal and to charge a fee to administer the program.
The requirement to provide the most recent record from having a septic tank pumped will be difficult for Novotny to comply with, he said, as he had no reason to retain the receipt it. He will wait, he added, until he has the tank pumped again and then submit that receipt with the paperwork.
Caution for compliance
The legal warning for failing to complete the paperwork is clear: “Failure to comply with this request is a misdemeanor and will result in legal action as provided for in Section 50-2-124 Montana Code An-notated.”
And equally clear is the resentment that this language stirs.
“You’re a criminal if you don’t answer the questions and pay the $57,” Dooling said.
That legal language also asks those who find any part of this notification in error to please contact the Health Department immediately at 447-8385.
Any time the county sends out a form that someone is required to complete, the possible penalties for noncompliance are noted so there is an understanding of the process, Norberg said, adding that “it’s not meant to be threatening … it’s just that we have to be transparent on what those penalties are.”
The section of law cited says that anyone who does not comply with rules adopted by a local board is guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction the person shall be fined not less than $10 nor more than $200.
“You’re threatened with a misdemeanor if you don’t give them the information they asked for,” Ward said.
Need for the survey
According to a Health Department staff report from July 2012 to April 1, 2013, 721 of the 800 people who had received the assessments had completed them. The department’s goal is 200 per month.
Last year, the first year for the new regulation, 33 septic systems were reported to the county as having failed, Moore said.
“Ultimately those failures are of concern to us as they are a public health concern,” she added.
“As population density increases, there’s a greater threat to that which everyone shares in common – the watertable,” Ward said.
However, he sees water quality again being used as a tactic in a bid for control for what will amount to a form of “de facto” zoning in the Helena Valley.
The tactics being used to collect septic system data and the intent to manage those homeowners’ systems is making people angry, he added.
County officials say there is no interest in the kind of regulation zoning creates. Instead, from their point of view, it’s a matter of protecting public health.
Norberg said there is no effort under way to create any control such as could be exerted under zoning.
“We’re public health,” she said. “We’re not zoning.”
Without zoning in the county, all a prospective homeowner generally needs to do is prove there’s room on the property for a well and septic system in addition to the house and to have the home’s elec-trical systems inspected, Ward said.
Ward explains the outcome he sees from this new layer of regulation and said the consequence for homeowners such as himself is “I don’t own it outright,” he said of his septic system. “I have to pay a fee to use it.”
Septic system management will be under the Health Department’s control as it will regulate operation and maintenance, he said.
Norberg disagrees with his assessment of the regulations’ outcome and said control of a homeowner’s septic system will still remain with that homeowner.
The county has no interest in owning anyone’s septic system, but officials see this program working in tandem with the initial permitting that allows installation of a septic system.
“Ultimately, we don’t want people getting sick. We don’t want some big outbreak of something,” Norberg said.
Uncertainty and apprehension
People have expressed their fears and concerns to Ward who said he’s been told of fears to question officials or conduct research. Without anyone to be an advocate for them, he explained, “you are on your own.”
“If you have any reservations or questions, it’s very difficult to deal with them,” Ward said.
“That’s not their intent, but that’s the image they’re projecting,” he added.
Hearing this worries Moore who said those who administer the program would rather work with people. Norberg urges people with concerns to come in and see her.
“If we can’t work with them, we fail,” Moore said.
“Our intent is to make this a good, safe, healthy place to live,” she added.