Homeowners decry a new fee to support monitoring a Washington state county’s septic systems.


King County, including the Greater Seattle area in Washington state, recently floated a proposal to add an annual fee of about $35 for owners of septic systems to ensure those systems are monitored to protect water quality in the Puget Sound. The proposed measure was a response to rising fecal bacteria levels in the waters closing down shellfish harvesting and many homeowners reportedly ignoring requirements to care for their septic systems.

According to news accounts, only 2 percent of homeowners with septic systems submit annual maintenance reports. Currently, homeowners pay a $28 fee for monitoring, but the fee is only triggered when they submit operations and maintenance reports. With so little compliance, a fraction of the necessary funds for monitoring are raised.

The new charge is not a fee, but a $35 tax, the affected homeowners say. And as with any new tax, they came out by the hundreds at several public meetings on the proposal. Their outcry prompted county officials to back off on the fee, leaving health department officials with no way to effectively monitor how well septic systems in King County are functioning. State law requires the county to oversee septic systems, and the fee would have raised about $3 million to go toward necessary staffing.

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STAY OUTTA MY BACKYARD

Speaking on behalf of the opposition, Republican state Rep. Chad Magendanz said homeowners — left to their own devices — will effectively monitor their septic systems. He said these homeowners don’t want someone from the government looking at their private wastewater systems.

“They really just hit a nerve with this additional fee,” Magendanz was quoted as saying in a report at MYNorthwest.com. “It’s on our own land. We’re not needing county services for this. We have a vested interest in maintaining (septic systems) and making sure we have a good quality of life on our own property.”

“I don’t like the fact that they would come onto my property,” homeowner Jean Jackson said in one social media account. At a public meeting, she explained that growing up, her family didn’t pump their septic tank for 20 years, until they moved. She said her current system wasn’t pumped for eight years, until waste backed up into the house.

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And a local mayor made the argument that owners and neighbors should be left to deal with failing septic systems.

“When systems fail, they fail up in your backyard,” said Ken Hearing, mayor of North Bend, Washington. “You know, your neighbors know, somebody calls the county. That’s the best way to let that happen.”

FIGHTING MISCONCEPTIONS

Rather than make compelling points against the new fee, these responses offer up perhaps the best argument for pushing it through. Through their ignorance, the opposition raises the common misconceptions and fallacies about septic system care that pumpers hear on a daily basis. These include:

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Homeowners will responsibly care for their septic systems.

How many homeowners you encounter show a genuine interest in operations and maintenance of their septic systems? Many would be happy if they never had to give a thought to what happens to their waste after flushing. And while some homeowners are experienced with septic systems, how many folks move from the city to the country and have absolutely no idea that a septic system can become overburdened? Through indifference or ignorance, many homeowners don’t know how to care for a septic system or realize when it needs maintenance.

Septic tank pumping is unnecessary.

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“Why, we’ve lived here 25 years and never had to pump the septic tank. It’s always worked just fine.” How many times have you heard this when being called out on an emergency? Many homeowners think a septic system is magically self-sustaining and view recommended maintenance intervals as unnecessary or a ploy by pumpers to fatten their wallets. It usually takes the hammer of mandated pumping to prompt homeowners to call for service on a routine basis.
 
It’s time to act when wastewater surfaces in the yard.

It’s difficult for homeowners to make the connection between poor maintenance and drainfield failure. They view that stinky puddle in the backyard as a sign that it’s time to pump the tank rather than a warning of a more serious problem. They have no idea that spending a few hundred dollars every three to five years to pump the tank could save them a $20,000 disaster down the road. They don’t consider the public health concern caused by pathogen-rich water ponding in their backyards. How many homeowners would rather remain blissfully ignorant about their septic system performance now, only to complain about dire consequences later?

NOBODY WANTS HIGHER TAXES

Issues over property rights and increasing taxes have been and always will be controversial. We all want to preserve control of our own destiny and to keep as much of our hard-earned income as possible. However, sometimes it makes sense to pay to protect the things that matter the most to us. In this case, a small fee can help keep the environment clean, drinking water safe, and neighborhoods free of dangerous pathogens and foul odors.

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A $35 monitoring fee and a septic tank pumpout every few years pales in comparison to the cost of municipal sewer service, at least everywhere I’ve lived. Septic systems provide a good wastewater treatment value. These systems are being utilized by millions of families across the country, and proper maintenance is a responsibility of the private owners. We as an industry need to remind the general public about this important point — or risk lost confidence in the effectiveness of decentralized wastewater treatment.


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