The Politics Of Septic Tank Permitting

Polk County commissioners are launching an effort to get out of septic tank fee subsidy business.

It’s not that Polk commissioners don’t mind subsidizing new development. They’ve done that for years through cut-rate impact fees and a developer-friendly development regulations and tax breaks for new businesses.

What they don’t like is taking the heat for county fees that properly should be state fees, even though the state authorizes counties to impose the fees.

There are many such fees, but the ones that got the County Commission’s attention were the ones for inspecting the installation of septic tanks for new homes. The inspections are done by the Florida Department Health’s staff in Polk County, commonly referred to as the Polk County Health Department.

This is an issue because the number of new permits has been increasing steadily in recent years with the rebound of new construction following the burst of the housing bubble in 2008.

Polk has an estimated 100,000 septic tanks, health officials said, but admitted they don’t know where 86,000 of the tanks are because they were installed before the Florida Legislature authorized health officials to regulate them. The current statute dates to 1975. There reportedly were other earlier regulations, but they were intended to deal with disease prevention rather than pollution control.

Septic tanks had become more widespread in Florida during the post-World War II housing boom that outstripped the ability of cities to provide sewer service.

The problem the County Commission and state health officials are dealing with today is that the fees the state has set for septic tank inspections leaves the Polk County Health Department with a $126,492 deficit in the current year alone, according to a presentation during a work session Wednesday.

State law allows health officials to seek approval for local surcharges to help the operations to break even.

Polk commissioners passed a resolution containing a revised list of fees to accomplish that in 2016, but they didn’t know and were not told by staff that there were fee increases included for their friends in the development industry.

When health officials began charging the fees earlier this year, the stuff that goes into the septic tanks hit the fan.

The Polk County Builders Association contacted Commissioner George Lindsey, a longtime member of the organization, and he pressed their case with health officials.

The result tentatively worked out during this week’s work session is for the local surcharge for new septic tank inspections to be $50 instead of the $125 originally proposed, which will leave health officials with smaller deficit of $72,792, which they say they can cover by cutting back on other things.

But Dr. Joy Jackson, the director of the Polk Health Department, emphasized the importance of making sure the department’s programs are properly funded because any lapse could potentially increase the risk to public health.

For instance, there was discussion of cutting back on the frequency of inspecting drinking water systems in order to make up for the funds lost by lowering local septic tank surcharges.

Commissioners tentatively agreed to temporarily reinstate some local fees for septic tank inspections—they had already approved the fee schedules for non-developer-related businesses such as tattoo parlors and tanning salons—but want the fees to expire next June in hopes of pressuring the Florida Legislature to approve a new state fee schedule that will get counties out of the supplemental fee business.

Good luck with that.

If experience is any guide, any changes the Legislature makes—absence some well-publicized crisis—will take more than a year.

The other part that’s certainly no slam dunk is what level of fees the state will charge in its revised list.

You can bet lobbyists for the development industry and any other industry or trade group affected by these fees will be seeking to keep the fees as low as possible.

That means the deficits and compromises on providing adequate public health inspections and prevention programs will continue to be a struggle in Polk County and elsewhere.