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Health office wants to raise many fees

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GREENFIELD — Fees for septic tank applications and certain immunizations through the Hancock County Health Department could rise this year, but the county commissioners are baffled on the reason for the hikes.

Currently, someone seeking a septic tank permit would pay $100 for the office to process an application and conduct inspections. The health department is proposing a new rate of $250 for both, which gave Hancock County Commissioners sticker shock last week.

“We’re not in the business of making money. That’s a huge jump, in my opinion,” said President Derek Towle.

Commissioners, who will have to approve the new fees, ended up tabling the proposal. Now, a week later, they’re still not sure why the public should be asked to pay more than double for septic applications. They’re also puzzled about proposals to raise fees for a number of immunizations.

County health officer Dr. Sandra Aspy and environmental health specialist Richard Garrett made the presentation to commissioners last week. Garrett said he’s been studying what other counties charge for septic applications and permits. Several, he said, charge a lot more than Hancock County. Based on the time it takes to inspect property, sketch out plans and file paperwork, Garrett said the county should be charging a lot more than $100 for both services.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive,” he said. “It’s seven hours of staff time to process it, including inspections and such.”

But Towle and Commissioner Bard Armstrong said this week that it doesn’t make sense for the county health department to be charging higher fees. Local residents already pay taxes to support staff at the health department, they say, so user fees should be kept to a minimum.

“I still think they need to do some more homework with it and really get the numbers to where they need to be,” Towle said.

The change would affect dozens of local residents. In 2013, 56 people filed for septic applications, and 21 permits were administered, according to health department records.

The health department declined further comment to the Daily Reporter on the septic fees, saying in a written statement that it is not appropriate to comment on the matter further while commissioners are taking the proposal under advisement.

Gregg Morelock, attorney for the health department, said Tuesday that he advised the department to keep mum to the media on the septic fees.

“We make a recommendation, and we live by whatever the commissioners say,” Morelock said. “That’s why I didn’t want my client talking outside of the public meeting and answering the questions that were raised there.”

Meanwhile, the health department is also suggesting fees for certain vaccines be raised. Some would go up by $5; others would go up by as much as $80.

Crystal Baker, office manager for the department, said fees are all based on what the county’s provider is charging for vaccines. The typhoid vaccine, for example, costs $61.88 for the county to buy, so the department proposes charging $65 for the vaccine. That’s a $10 increase, and Baker said the charge would not only pay for the increase in what the county is paying for the vaccine, but also the cost of supplies such as syringes.

What makes vaccine costs confusing, Baker said, is the fact that there are several categories of prices for which payment would be accepted. One is for people who don’t have insurance who pay out of pocket; another is through company VaxCare, which the county uses for people who have insurance.

It’s hard to tell how many people the proposed fee hike for vaccines could affect. Roughly 170 people took the types of vaccines in 2013 whose prices could be raised this year, according to the health department. But the most common vaccines, such as the adult tuberculosis test, will remain at $10.

Common services at the health department, such as issuing birth and death certificates and food permits, will also remain the same.

Commissioner Tom Stevens said he’s having a hard time understanding the difference between payments for certain immunizations based on who has insurance, and he’s waiting until he learns more before he would approve the proposal.

Towle said he recently met with officials from the health department, and he’s still confused about the rising cost of immunizations. He also is concerned about the proposal to raise septic system fees.

Towle said there’s still a week before the next commissioners meeting, so hopefully health officials can shed some more light on the issue so a decision can be made. Bottom line, Towle said, is the department is a public agency funded by tax dollars, so costs should be kept as low as possible.

“As long as they can justify why we need to increase the fees, I’m OK with that,” Towle said. “But we have to be able to balance it between what we pay for taxes and what we’re going to pay in fees.”

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