Board of Health weighs fee hikes

by Karina Coombs

The Board of Health (BOH) is looking to increase fees to offset rising expenses. At the request of board member Cathy Galligan, Finance Committee (FinCom) Chair Jerry Lerman was also in attendance at the BOH meeting on January 29 to provide specific information on budgets and fees.

As discussed at the December 10, 2012 board meeting, Galligan explained that the board’s 53E-revolving account had dropped quickly to a current balance of $1,800 after receiving late engineering bills. Galligan, Health Agent Linda Fantasia, and board member Vallahb Sarma have been meeting in an effort to determine how the balance got so low and how to keep it from happening again. The group has spoken with BOH Consultant Rob Frado and has his assurance that going forward, bills will be submitted more promptly.

After meeting for approximately six weeks, the group identified several factors that contributed to the drop in funds. Galligan explained that there were a number of old and approved septic system plans that were only now in the process of getting built after years of state permit extensions. Six to ten years ago when these permits were issued, the fees were lower and there is no funding for this disparity. The group also discovered that a large percentage of septic costs were engineering costs for systems and sites that are more complicated and challenging than in previous years. The BOH had this issue with the Benfield housing development plans and had to ask for additional engineering costs because of the complexity of the system (see “BOH hears Benfield project status,” October 26, 2012).

The group determined that current fees were not covering a growing percentage of management hours incurred by Frado, as opposed to his fieldwork engineering hours. Rising management costs were based on hours spent by Frado attending meetings, phone calls, follow-up, invoicing, etc. BOH Chair Jeffrey Brem expressed some concern that the number of management hours appeared to be so high and suggested the group also consider auditing, containing costs through contractual changes and/or looking at other engineers and firms, noting that he wants “everything to be on the table for long-term health and not just short-term fees.”

Recognizing that true costs were not being captured in fees, Galligan noted that there was unfunded work that the board was liable for. To better get a grasp on fees and raise them where necessary, Galligan presented the board with a copy of the fee schedule showing current fees and what the group had estimated to be the actual cost of each.

While some members suggested increasing fees on complicated systems because they took more engineering time, others thought that it was not in the best interest of the town to have people choose less effective systems in an effort to save money on permit fees. “Why charge more money for the homeowner that is putting in a better system?” asked Brem.

Lerman commended the group for taking charge of their budget shortfall and for considering both short- and long-term solutions to the problem, and was particularly impressed with the fee assessment. Lerman asked, “How does the town want to deal with permits? Are [they] set at a rate that covers cost or should permit fees be set at a rate for other reasons and the town [is expected] to make up the difference? The fees have to be reasonable and plausible to make sure the owner does things above board.” Fantasia noted that fees in Carlisle had not changed since 2008 and that other similar towns had both higher fees and more of them.

Galligan said that she would like to start looking first at increasing fees for both sewage disposal plans and soil testing, but the group determined they would need an additional meeting on February 5, to go over the document and consider further data analysis before a regularly scheduled meeting on February 12, to discuss any proposed fee increases.

While noting that FinCom was trying to control spending because of school debt funding, Lerman encouraged the BOH to get on the next FinCom agenda and request a one-time budget increase. Lerman explained that there was also a reserve account in place to help make up budget overages for departments. Lerman suggested the BOH have a plan in place to address both short-term and long-term issues so that they do not find themselves in this position again. Brem said he would appear at the February 25 FinCom meeting at 8 p.m. ∆