This year, many Mahoning County septic system owners will have their systems tested to determine if they’re failing and be required to repair them if needed, before obtaining a permit to operate them legally.
At best, if a septic system isn’t falling apart or leaking into the environment, its owner will only need to pay a permitting fee. At worst, the whole system could need to be replaced, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars. For most of the septic systems in the county, owners will have three years to fix any issues.
The Ohio Department of Health in 2015 gave county health departments 10 years to implement a new septic maintenance and permitting program. That 2025 deadline is now approaching, said Colton Masters, environmental health director at Mahoning County Public Health.
Through the new permitting program, local health officials expect to identify more failing septic systems in the county and keep their owners liable for proper maintenance, they said.
When asked why the county waited seven years to implement the program, Masters said during that time, health officials worked with surrounding counties to set an affordable permit fee. They also coordinated public awareness campaigns to avoid misinformation — but the rumor mill churned anyway, Masters said.
Misinformation on the amount residents will have to pay for the septic permit and repairs circulated by word-of-mouth during the first roll-out, which started this month.
“One misconception I heard was we were going to get warrants and go onto everyone’s property to test every septic system,” Masters said. “We don’t have the people to do that, nor do I want to.”
Masters said the septic program will ensure homeowners take better care of their septic systems in the long term, and keep ground and well water free of bacteria like E. coli and cholera.
“The better you take care of it the less chance there is you’re discharging this waste to not only the surface, but in most cases, to neighboring properties,” he said. “You don’t want to get your waste onto your neighbor’s lot.”
By annually evaluating septic systems, owners can cut down on algae bacteria — which can lessen the quality of nearby water bodies — and the leaching of high amounts of nitrogen and phosphate, Masters said.
Masters said there are an estimated 17,000 septic systems in Mahoning County, and there are likely many more for which the health department doesn’t yet have documentation.
Kris Wilster, environmental director for Trumbull County Combined Health District, estimated between 20,000 to 25,000 septic tanks are recorded under that county’s septic program.
Milton Township in Mahoning County is a part of the program’s first rollout in January, said Wendy DiBernardi, township trustee. Most septic systems are located in the southern part of Lake Milton and along the eastern part of State Route 534 going through the township.
“It’s a big benefit to us because our township is unique in the sense that we have a body of water [Lake Milton] that we certainly don’t want contaminated in any way,” she said. “There are on the south end of the lake a lot of septic systems. It’s a good thing, knowing that they’re going to be inspected.”
What’s the cost?
Masters said every septic tank system owner will be required to pay new septic permitting fees within 30 days of receiving their mailed notice. Most homeowners will be required to pay $90 for a three-year permit, Masters said. Others will have to pay $40 or $125 a year, depending on their septic system’s equipment.
If a septic owner does not pay the program fee, they’ll receive a certified letter in the mail, along with a 30-day extension to pay. After that, the county auditor will assess the fee on the owner’s property taxes, along with a $180 penalty, Masters said.
The county’s health department compared permit rates with surrounding counties like Trumbull, Stark and Medina to set a reasonable and affordable cost for residents to pay.
“We have to fund the program somehow,” Masters said.
Permitting costs vary according to how complicated the system is. The majority of Mahoning’s about 17,000 documented septic systems are basic, and owners will only pay the $90 fee for a three-year permit.
But systems found to be deficient must be repaired before they can be permitted. Owners of the most basic systems who are seeking three-year permits have three years to get their septic system in compliance. They’ll also be required to send the county health department proof that their septic tank was pumped.
Owners of more complicated systems have one year to fix their systems, but most of these owners already keep regular maintenance contracts.
A list of septic service companies in the region are listed on the county health department website.
Lou Richmond, owner of Portage Septic Tank in Warren, which manufactures tanks and also services septic systems in each Valley county as well as Portage, Geauga, Cuyahoga and Lorain, said septic system work typically costs between $300 and $500.
Typically, septic systems — most have 1,000-gallon tanks — won’t need replacement parts, he said, but if they do, it’s most likely the pump, which moves the sewage elsewhere, or the aeration tank’s compressor, which draws air into the system. The good news is those parts are “readily available” right now, he said.
Overall, Richmond recommended septic owners stick with a contractor they’re comfortable with and heed their advice. People who don’t understand how septic systems work are usually the people who “want someone to blame when something goes wrong,” Richmond said.
The county-level maintenance programs are intended to make homeowners more responsible for their upkeep.
“It’s state law, so there’s really no fighting it at this point,” Richmond said. “Out of sight, out of mind septic systems are in the past.”
Repair and maintenance costs might not break the bank, but, as Masters said, full-on replacements can cost between $20,000 and $30,000.
But if a septic system is not failing and shows no contamination to groundwater and neighboring systems, masters said homeowners have nothing to worry about.
“We’re not here to try and cost people money, or force everyone to upgrade their system,” he said. “If your system is not failing, or creating a nuisance, there’s no need for us to go in and make you update it.”
A septic system is not deemed failing based on the initial septic report, Masters said.
“If the report is turned in and the pumper notices something about the tank that’s off like deteriorating on the inside, they can note that on the form and we can send someone out to [run water tests] on the system,” he said — and that will determine whether repairs are needed.
Lisa Balsinger, Milton Township fiscal officer, said she hopes the septic system program will hold homeowners in the township accountable to keep their utilities and systems updated.
“You have a lot of them that maintain, inspect [and] do the right thing because septic systems — there’s maintenance to them, and it’s the responsibility of the homeowner and they want it working properly,” she said. “Making them do what they should do on their own.”
Wilster said Trumbull County started its septic program in 2007, years before it became a state mandate. He said homeowners never had any issue with paying the septic permit fees.
There’s funding help available
Mahoning County Public Health applies each year for US EPA Water Pollution Control Loan Fund monies to help low-to-middle income families with septic system repairs. Masters said the county received the maximum amount of $150,000 this year.
Balsinger said many septic systems are located in low-to-middle class areas in Milton Township, where residents will likely be eligible for funding.
“We get a considerable sum of money to help pay for low income families’ septic systems repairs, replacements or tie-ins,” Masters said. “It can either cover a portion of it, or the entire thing.”
Masters said homeowners can reach out to the health department to learn more on the financial requirements needed to apply for assistance.
Visit the county health department’s website, or call 330-270-2855 to learn more about the septic system program.
In addition to EPA funding, the Ohio Department of Health lists several other potential funding avenues, like the Community Development Block Grant or Community Housing Improvement programs, which can be used to fix failing sewage systems.
When will this start?
The program began this month in townships and cities along the county’s northern border and that roll-out will continue in phases through October.
The county health department will mail a letter and fact sheet to owners once the program is rolled out in their area. Owners must then pay the one- to three-year permit fee for the county health department and county repair services to inspect their septic system.
Here’s the schedule:
- January: Milton (Craig Beach); Jackson; Austintown; Youngstown; Coitsville; Campbell; and Struthers — a total of 3,900 recorded septic systems.
- Apr: Ellsworth; Canfield (Canfield city); Boardman; and Poland (Poland Village) — a total of 4,485 recorded septic systems.
- July: Berlin; Smith (Sebring and Beloit); goshen; and Green (Washingtonville) — a total of 4,829 recorded septic systems.
- October: Beaver and Springfield (New Middletown) — a total of 4,090 recorded septic systems.
“If your roll-out system is in October, right now it’s essentially waiting for your letter to come and what information we’ll need from you going forward,” Masters said.
Balsinger said she felt the program’s first phase didn’t give township homeowners enough time to learn about the program and pay their permit fee.
“Technically, we have until Jan 30, and Jan 4 [was] my first time hearing this,” she said, adding at least one more quarter would have helped.
Mahoning Matters staff contributed to this report.