County makes changes to handle septic-permit overload

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The Flathead City-County Health Department has made changes to its staffing and scheduling in an effort to address recent concerns regarding an upswing in local septic permit applications that have led to delays in subdivision developments.

The complaints consumed the lion’s share of the Flathead County Board of Health meeting in February when a group of local engineers and consultants underscored issues with septic permit applications being sent to the state Department of Environmental Quality instead of being handled on a local level.

Flathead County is contracted to review the applications for compliance with the Sanitation and Subdivision Act on behalf of the state. However, Flathead’s economy has steadily grown in recent years, bringing with it an increase in the volume of septic permit applications — an upswing that has forced county employees to share the load with the state in recent years in order to meet time requirements for review.

But during the February meeting, engineers said when applications are passed on to the state, the approval process can take upwards of one year, which is about four times as long as if they were handled locally. And with septic review applications taking precedence over subdivisions, the time lapse has led to a delay in the processing of subdivision applications.

Following February’s meeting, board members asked the county to come up with short-term solutions to the issue. During a Board of Health meeting on Thursday, five changes within the department were listed in a letter from Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson.

According to the letter, Christine Hughes has become the new environmental health manager for Flathead County.

“As part of her new role, she will be implementing a time study for all environmental health programs,” Hanson noted in her letter. “This study will be utilized to review the permanent staffing and determine if changes need to be made.”

She continued, saying “special focus” will be given to quantifying the time involved with processing subdivision applications.

The department adjusted one employee’s workday to guarantee she has “uninterrupted blocks of time scheduled to focus on subdivision activities,” and another employee attended a subdivision training in March. According to the letter, the training will allow her to be able to assist with subdivisions as time allows.

The department also submitted a request to hire a temporary worker to assist with septic reviews for spring and summer of 2019. However, the letter suggested the temporary position has the potential to become a permanent position down the line.

Finally, Hanson requested that if at any time the Department of Environmental Quality increases its number of audited applications above 1 in 10, that the department be notified immediately.

“I was encouraged by the letter,” said longtime Flathead Valley engineer Jeff Larsen. “I want it to be taken seriously and solved, but I do understand that it won’t be solved overnight. I will be keeping a close eye on things.”

Hanson’s input was in response to a letter sent to the department in late December by Larsen. In his letter he wrote, among other things, “The timely and reasonable review of these applications can make or break a project and therefore the review process is important to the applicant, consultant and general welfare of the Flathead County economy.”

Larsen also led discussion during the February meeting. He and others who spoke suggested additional staff be hired to help with septic reviews so those most qualified to tackle subdivisions could focus solely on that.

Hanson said that was a possibility, but that hiring a qualified sanitarian is rare and the department will probably have to train someone instead, which takes about one year.

Overall, Larsen said he believes the five changes in the department are good steps toward ensuring applications are completed in a timely manner.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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