After months of processing pending applications for septic system inspections and permits, it looked like the Moore County Environmental Health Department was finally making progress on its caseload — and they were.
At the height of the backlog earlier this year, septic permit applicants could expect to wait six to eight months for approval. There were hundreds of permits in the queue. Four months later, that time had halved. Wait times are now three to four months, said Matt Garner, the county’s acting health director.
Garner provided updates on the licensing status in back-to-back presentations last week to the Moore County Board of Health and Board of Commissioners. Sharing the most recent data for septic permits, Garner said his department is receiving 18 requests per week and closing 21.
As of the end of July, there were 133 pending site assessment applications for a septic system, according to data from the county’s permit dashboard.
Garner believes it is possible to reduce those wait times even further.
“Our goal is a two-week turnaround, and it’s entirely achievable if we’re able to fill positions and continue to work at a pace that exceeds what we see happening,” Garner said.
These slow processing times for septic permits have had a ripple effect throughout the county. The Department of Environmental Health is the only organization empowered to issue such permits. Long wait times have delayed new residential developments that rely on septic systems for months. This has left builders, landscapers and homeowners in need of septic systems with few options other than to wait.
Brandon Haddock, vice president of Pinehurst Homes Inc., said the delay is forcing local builders to hire private specialists to help expedite the permitting process.
“We are forced to use third-party soil scientists, which incurs additional costs,” said Haddock, former president of the Moore County Home Builders Association. “Most of our work is in town where we have sewers (capacity), so it’s not a heist. But everything in the county is a heist. I’ve seen jobs wait up to four to six months.
The companies most affected by the delay are ‘larger homebuilders doing lane neighborhoods’ in parts of the county without access to sewer service, according to Haddock.
“They may have up to 60 homes on hold,” he said. “These are the larger companies that focus on speculative homes, while our business focuses on custom residential builds. This usually places us in an area where there are sewers, but not all the time.
The long wait for county-approved septic permits, Haddock said, “is by no means a new problem.”
“It’s a problem they’ve been dealing with for a number of years,” he said.
Garner confirmed this statement in his final comments.
“Previously, in the past, we’ve worked with a deficit for quite some time,” Garner said.
About two or three years ago, builders still had to wait, but the delays were about one to two months to get a permit approved.
“I would like to go even further than that, with a two-week wait between permit submission and turnaround times,” Garner added.
There is no single reason for the permit backlog. Garner has repeatedly emphasized previously that Moore is not alone; other counties also faced slow processing times for septic permits. However, the ministry consistently cited staffing shortages as the reason for the delays.
Prior to the pandemic, the on-site wastewater division was fully staffed, with five positions filled. However, by the end of 2021, the division was down to just two employees, with three departures in 2021. Garner said this followed “several retirements and the loss of staff due to the general attrition”.
Last November, the issue – already acute by then – was brought to the attention of county commissioners.
“We are understaffed. We are sorely understaffed,” Robert Wittmann, the health director at the time, told the Board of Commissioners.
In January, the department had two more positions approved for the septic permit division, a change that was the result of a “workforce study” that found additional staff were needed to handle the influx of applications for septic permits. For a month, the department had two people in a seven-person division.
However, in February, the department recruited two trainees who underwent several months of training and were certified to approve permits in June. The ministry also had some success when it got the go-ahead to create a new Environmental Health Technician position in the spring, which was quickly filled. Although the new employee was not able to actively approve permits, this person could help by taking on other duties, such as collecting soil samples, to expedite the permitting process.
Two steps forward, three steps back
Despite recent success in hiring new employees, the department faced another setback last month after two employees quit within days of each other. That left the sewage division in place with two out of seven positions filled — the same circumstance Garner found the division in January.
One of the employees, Alex Thompson, was a new recruit who had just completed field training with the county. Garner said he took advantage of another opportunity closer to home. The other employee was Senior Soil Specialist Sloan Griffin, who had worked in the department for several years.
Garner says the county has made two “conditional offers” to candidates to fill vacancies. An additional candidate, who has dual certification in sewage and food and accommodation, has also accepted a conditional offer and will work with the onsite sewage division to process septic permits.
It is unclear what the expectations are for environmental health personnel working in the on-site wastewater division. According to an internal policy published in June 2019, the Environmental Health Service has certain expectations that customers must meet before a property is assessed for a septic installation. The document, which was most recently reviewed in February, says its goal is to “process on-site sewage system requests within 10 working days.”
The document goes on to state that “the 10-day service timelines will begin when all of the above steps have been completed.” Steps include prioritization when submitting multiple requests; owner’s authorization for evaluation; placement of field markings for property lines and proposed structures; ensure the property is accessible; and notify the Environmental Health Department when all steps are complete.
Garner said some applications are not processed because they do not meet the requirements needed to begin permit assessment.
Since the beginning of this year, the Department of Environmental Health has taken steps to reduce the backlog. On the personnel side, this includes hiring part-time staff and resources to help out on weekends, making deals for workers from other counties to help the department, and granting overtime. to current staff. The department also created a new environmental health technician position, filled last spring.
The department has also created a permit tracking system and dashboard, which allows users to track the status of their permits in real time and see the department’s current productivity. These are available on the department’s website.
Garner said the department has also significantly reduced fees for other licensing pathways that allow private environmental health specialists to assess the properties of septic systems. In these cases, customers can get their permits approved faster by paying a fee to have a private investigator appraise the property and then have that report verified by the county.
More recently, the department took an important step and finalized contracts with two outside agencies to help reduce the permit backlog, Garner said. The contracts are with Apex’s Agri-Waste Technologies and Raleigh’s Soil Services PLLC and cost the county just under $100,000 each, County Executive Wayne Vest said. The agreement runs until next June.
Garner said contractors will primarily focus on working with environmental health staff to process permit applications from oldest to latest on file, with the goal of processing an additional 10 to 12 permits per week on average. Although the contractors only work one to two days a week, Garner said their help “helps enormously” to manage the backlog.
In the short term, Garner said he plans to focus on hiring more resource staff, refining the licensing dashboard and increasing communications with the public. He said there had been “preliminary discussions” about performance-based pay for staff.
In his presentation at the Board of Commissioners meeting, he advocated offering competitive salaries to attract and retain staff in the future.
“A lot of times we’re in direct competition with other counties and other county health departments on salary, so if I could defend that, I would definitely do it to make us competitive and be able to recruit and retain those environmental health personnel,” Garner said.
“It’s a bit of one-upmanship at all levels,” he added.
Commissioner Nick Picerno, who has prioritized tackling the backlog, agreed. He said it was “imperative” to “get us on a competitive rate so that we can fill those positions and get those services.”
“I just think it’s a very important issue that we need to stay on top of until we fix it,” Picerno added.
Garner reiterated the importance of maintaining an open dialogue with a flow of information. He mentioned a round table in May as an example.
“One of the things that has been important throughout the process and tackling the backlog and working with the community is having a dialogue with our various stakeholders across the county – that would include your builders association , that would include your association of realtors, all of your other county departments involved in permits, inspections and construction,” Garner said. “(It’s) important to start that dialogue and important to define what the expectations are, what we can do to work together moving forward.”