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County takes steps to address soil inspection backlog

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Board of Commissioners at its meeting Monday took a step to provide the Environmental Health Department with more help to cut down on the backlog of on-site soil evaluations.

Commissioners approved a motion to advise County Manager Aaron Church to work with the health department to hire independently contracted soil scientists using up to $50,000 in county funding to chip away at the backlog. 

The wait time for soil evaluations, which are needed to install a septic tank or well system, ballooned to about 10 weeks several months ago as a short-staffed Environmental Health Department couldn’t keep up with requests. The long wait time can be damaging to development, Chairman Greg Edds said, especially to the construction of new homes and businesses.

Commissioner Craig Pierce echoed those concerns.

“When it comes to environmental services, this is where it all starts. These builders can’t start construction until this is done,” Pierce said.

To remedy the problem initially, commissioners in August approved $250,000 in bonuses and restructuring funds that would help the Health Department, which houses the environmental Health Department, to fill those positions. The richer bonuses allowed the Environmental Health Department to fill out its staff, minus one food and lodging inspector position that is still vacant.

Since hiring the new staff members, the wait time has been reduced from 10 weeks to about five weeks. While commissioners expressed their appreciation for the progress that has been made, they wanted to take action to decrease it further by approving the hiring of independent contractors. Some contractors who want to build in the county have already hired state-licensed soil scientists to conduct tests to circumvent the long wait time, commissioners said. Once the independent soil scientist conducts the on-site soil test, their paperwork is reviewed by Environmental Health staffers.

Edds recommended that the Health Department temporarily waive soil site inspection fees for builders who do pay for their own soil tests until the department has caught up on the backlog.

Commissioner Judy Klusman made the motion to hire private soil scientists to conduct 20 site inspections in November and 20 site inspections in December with a goal of reducing the wait time to two weeks by the end of the year.

But commissioners were not able to follow through with the motion because they do not currently oversee the Health Department and, in turn, the Environmental Health Department.

Instead, commissioners approved the motion to advise Church to work with the health department to hire independently contracted soil scientists with the stipulation that no more than $50,000 of the county’s money can be spent. Church said that the $50,000 would most likely come from a Medicaid cost settlement — money the Rowan County Health Department receives for providing Medicaid services. To receive the funding, the county’s health board must request the money from commissioners at a future meeting.

During the meeting, Klusman expressed her desire that the Board of Commissioners further explore options to restructure the Health Department so that commissioners have direct control over what the department does.

“This is not just a one department within the (health) department problem,” said Klusman, who serves on the Health department Board. “It’s one thing after another after another. We need to make some major changes.”

At a meeting on Sept. 8, commissioners were presented with nine different plans for consolidating agencies, several of which included commissioners assuming the powers and duties of the health board and social services board, which would then be consolidated.

While commissioners did not discuss those plans in depth on Monday, they did approve a motion for Church and County Attorney Jay Dees to craft a motion that they may adopt at their next meeting on Nov. 16 to hold a public hearing about restructuring the health department on Jan. 4, the first meeting of 2021.

In other meeting business:

• Commissioners received an update on how the county is spending Coronavirus Relief Fund money. Finance Director Jim Howden informed commissioners that the county has spent $3.1 million of the available $5.3 million through October and currently has $2.19 in expenditures in progress. Given those calculations, Howden said that the county is projected to have $6,807 left over. Commissioners across the board voiced their desire that the excess money be used to help small, local businesses. Church told commissioners that the county will continue to keep a close eye on that money and will use whatever it has left over for that purpose.

• Commissioners approved a request from West End Plaza tenant Bath and Body Works for the county to abate 50% the rent due during the time that it was forced to close due to coronavirus, which was from mid-March through July 2. In addition to approving the abatement, commissioners approved an extension of Bath and Body Works’ lease. The company already paid August and September rent payments in full.

• Commissioners approved a request from project engineer Sam King Jr. on behalf of Morgan Well and Pump Inc. to rezone a 3.16-acre tract of land located on the southeast corner of Old Beatty Ford and Bostian roads referenced as Rowan County Tax Parcels 140-234. The land will be rezoned commercial, businesses and industrial from rural agricultural to accommodate a 4,000-square-foot building and associated storage area for a water well drilling contractor business.

• The Rowan County Board of Commissioners proclaimed Nov. 16-20 as Farm-City Week. The Rowan County Cooperative Extension and the Rowan County Soil and Water Conservation District have planned a series of virtual agriculture awareness events that will take place throughout the week. Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene read the proclamation and voiced his support and appreciation of Rowan County’s farms.“People are always surprised at what farming adds to a county like ours,” Commissioner Jim Greene said. “It’s an $11 million industry and besides just the money, the beauty that farming brings to the county makes us different than many other counties.”

• Commissioners approved a temporary use agreement with the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority for the Tis The Season Spectacular Parade. The parade, which is to be held on Wednesday, Nov. 25, will have attendees drive down Main Street while enjoying various holiday decorations and entertainment along the way. Included in the parade will be the Dakota and Friends dinosaur attraction, local bands and even a hot air balloon, among more traditional Christmas decorations.

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