Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.
Perhaps taking their cue from the Republicans in the Legislature, the Washington County Board is considering implementing a new fee on Washington County taxpayers to do something that the county has already been doing for nearly 20 years. The public hearing being held by the Washington County Planning and Parks Department is at 7:35 a.m. on Thursday. Since, like many people, I work and cannot attend a public meeting at 7:35 a.m. on a weekday, I will offer some thoughts in this space.
The new fee being considered is to pay for tracking the maintenance of private onsite wastewater treatment systems (POWTS). Much of Washington County is rural and residents do not have access to municipal sewer systems, so they install and maintain a private septic system. There are about 20,312 parcels in the county with a POWTS. The state has mandated since 2000 that counties track and report to make sure that these private systems are properly maintained. Washington County has been complying with this state mandate with the use of general county funds since then. The new annual fee being considered is $11 for the vast majority of POWTS owners.
The POWTS tracking system is fairly rudimentary. Every three years, the county sends a postcard reminder to the POWTS owners to remind them that they need to have their system maintained. The POWTS owner contracts with a private company that inspects the system, completes any necessary maintenance or cleaning, and then notifies the county that it is complete. The POWTS owner bears the cost of all of this.
Philosophically, there is nothing wrong with a fee to fund a government service. The difference between a fee and a tax is that a fee is usually voluntary and charged to the specific person who is receiving the direct benefit of the service. For example, a fee for a marriage license is perfectly reasonable. The couple getting married is receiving the direct benefit of the county service and there is no rational reason that all of the other taxpayers should bear the burden.
In the case of a new POWTS maintenance fee, it is not voluntary and the entire county is receiving the benefit. For the vast majority of POWTS owners, it is not optional. There are not any other waste treatment options available to them, so they must install and maintain a POWTS at their own expense. The purpose of the government tracking the maintenance of them is to help ensure that the water supply for all county residents is not unduly polluted. Given that the fee is not optional for POWTS owners and every county taxpayer is receiving the benefit, the fee being proposed would be more correctly described as a selective tax.
Furthermore, remember that this is a service that the county has been providing for nearly 20 years. As they consider supporting this service with a standalone fee, there has not been any corollary proposal to reduce the county property tax levy or sales tax by a corresponding amount. The fee is just in addition to all of the other taxes that county taxpayers are already paying. As presented, this is not a discussion about whether or not this particular service should be funded with a fee or the general tax. It is about whether the county should charge a fee for something they were already doing and then just use the liberated general tax revenue to spend on something else. It is a straightforward path to more spending.
Finally, one must really question the cost. At $11 per parcel, the proposed fee would raise roughly $230,000 per year. Look back at the third paragraph for how this program works. It is sending a postcard every three years and logging that the work is complete. It is something that could be completed by an intern with a spreadsheet. $230,000 per year?
In the program cost detail shared by the Planning and Parks Department, the annual program cost is actually listed at $227,527.28. Only $2,200 is allocated for printing, copying, and postage. The rest is for wages ($126,370), overtime ($400), benefits ($45,100.60), advertising ($300), office supplies ($600), vehicles ($6,300), conference fees ($1,400), cost allocation for planning ($25,578), and on and on. That is a tremendous amount of overhead and larded-up costs for a very, very simple POWTS maintenance program. I find it difficult to imagine why POWTS owners should be charged an extra fee to shoulder the costs of things like conference fees and advertising.
The proposed POWTS fee looks suspiciously like another money grab by a government to continue to fund bloat and waste. The Washington County Board should categorically reject it and apologize to the taxpayers for ever suggesting it.