The Community Action Team is actively seeking property owners in Tillamook, Clatsop and Columbia Counties whose wastewater systems cannot participate in a $1.5 million, grant-funded, no-interest, no-payment replacement program.
Casey Mitchell, who oversees the program for the Community Action Team (CAT), said implementation has been slow so far because property owners have been reluctant to interact with team members for the project.
Mitchell emphasized that while the program is implemented in collaboration with county governments, they and CAT are committed to helping homeowners and are not using the program as an enforcement tool to penalize failed or failing systems.
CAT applied for the grant earlier this year in collaboration with Tillamook County and received the $1.5 million grant in June from state coronavirus recovery funds, courtesy of the Department of Environmental Quality. The program offers homeowners in unincorporated portions of the three counties with septic system problems the opportunity to apply for a loan to finance the repair or replacement of the system.
The loans offered under the program have a term of 30 years, no interest and no payments due. They are available to people earning 120% of the area median income or less, which is about $60,000 for an individual and $75,000 for a family of three in Tillamook County.
The loans are repaid when the property is sold, with funds returning to the program’s coffers and can be reused for future loans. If the property is not sold or refinanced for non-emergency purposes during the thirty-year term, the loan will be forgiven.
Mitchell said CAT has had great success with a similar loan program that offers the same terms to help residents repair roofs and siding and solve other home maintenance issues. This program has been running for more than 30 years and Mitchell said that based on his experience, he expects the septic tank loans could cycle three to four times before expiring due to inflation, overhead and administrative costs.
The $1.5 million is intended to fund an initial round of up to 109 system repairs and replacements across the three counties, although only 35 property owners have applied so far.
Repairs funded so far have ranged from tank replacements costing several thousand dollars to installing new drainage fields costing around $10,000 to installing whitewater systems costing $25,000.
Mitchell said the goal of the septic tank program is to help owners with failed systems remove the “anchor hanging over them” of possible code violations and ensure the safety of wells on their properties and those of neighbors.
CAT has partnered with Tillamook Estuaries Partnership to identify potentially faulty systems and monitor future progress through their environmental DNA testing program. Since 1997, the program has sent teams of volunteers into the field to collect water samples from around Tillamook County and test them for contaminants. It is possible to localize the source of the contamination through DNA testing.
Mitchell said he believes the unique program was key to CAT’s grant application being accepted and rated highest of all applicants.
Tillamook County estimates that approximately 15% of properties in the county rely on septic systems and that approximately 5-10% of these systems fail, such as: Coli contamination of well and groundwater.
Mitchell said CAT anticipated property owners’ reluctance to welcome government-affiliated staff to site inspections, but said he hoped people would see the positive results from participants and be willing to join the program.
“We knew it would be a challenge to reach some of these people, and I think if we do that, more of them will see and say, ‘Oh, this is real,'” Mitchell said.
When a property owner contacts CAT with concerns about their system, they will send a certified technician to the property to inspect the system. They then work with the county government to develop a plan for the property and obtain the necessary permits for the work. Funding is provided to finance engineering services for more complicated projects.
Once design work is complete, upgrades, repairs or replacements typically take two to three business days, according to Mitchell.
As with CAT’s other housing initiatives, Mitchell said the goal of the septic tank program is to facilitate home repairs that allow residents to age in place and avoid home sales due to maintenance costs.
Property owners who believe their septic system is in need of repair can contact CAT at (503) 410-5833.