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September 26, 2020

New environmental specialists begin work on backlog soil evaluations

SALISBURY — The county’s Environmental Health Department is making some progress toward eliminating a long wait time for inspections.

After untimely terminations and retirements left the Rowan County Health Department operating with a skeleton crew of health inspectors, the waiting list for septic tank inspections has ballooned to about 10 weeks, said Public Health Director Nina Oliver. That wait time nearly triples what it should be.

“An average waiting time (for inspections) is about three weeks,” Oliver said. “We went from three weeks about a year and a half ago, but through the last year you can see a slide. We had retirements, turnover and a few terminations. It was difficult because we could not fill these positions and the wait time got longer.”

In total, the Environmental Health Department had five vacancies that it had trouble filling. Three of those vacancies were for on-site specialists who conduct soil tests to ensure that septic tanks can be installed. The other two were for food and lodging inspectors.

In order to help the health department expeditiously fill those vacancies and cut down on the queue, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners last month approved an additional $257,935 in bonuses to attract authorized health inspectors.

The move to approve more money for bonuses came nearly a year after the commissioners already approved $5,000 bonuses for specialists. Still, that was not enough to bring in authorized specialists who could start conducting inspections immediately.

With the additional $257,935, the Health Department can offer specialists a more attractive $25,000 bonus, $15,000 of which is issued upon signing and $10,000 that is administered after they’ve completed their first year.

“With the bonuses that the commissioners approved, it was a $25,000 sign-on bonus and it did the trick,” Oliver said. “It was approved Aug. 11, the job announcements were listed that evening and we started our first interview that Friday, so three days later.”

Since then, three on-site specialists have been hired, including a program director who oversees the on-site program on a larger scale. A food and lodging inspector has also been hired, leaving only one vacancy remaining.

Two of the on-site specialists have already started; the third will begin next week, but Oliver said that the onboarding process and orientation will prevent them from going out into the field immediately. The specialists won’t be able to make significant progress in diminishing the backlog of inspection requests for at least another month.

“We’ve got the issue solved because we got the position filled, but like anything, it’ll take some time,” Oliver said. “My best estimate is that it would probably be mid to late October before we see a major impact.”

When commissioners elected to approve the added bonuses last month, it was to prevent Rowan County’s economic development from being stunted by a delay in inspections for septic tank viability.

“We don’t want to be stuck with a reputation as a place where developers don’t want to go,” county commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said.

With the demand for housing in Rowan County increasing and available inventory waning, the construction of new homes has been an area of growth, said Kellie Fischer, a realtor with Main Realty and the president-elect of the Salisbury Rowan Realtors. However, a delay on inspections for septic tank viability has impacted the ability for real estate developers and agents to push deals on new home construction through.

Fischer said she is happy to hear that the health department has taken steps to cut down on the wait time.

“I’m really looking forward to that as far as being able to relay that information out to our associates and members,” Fischer said. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls and concerns about buyers who are under contract and their due diligence time period is running out. It definitely has the ability to impact sales.”

If real progress isn’t made toward diminishing the wait time for inspections soon, Oliver said that she is open to requesting more help from the commissioners.

“If we get to the point where everyone is working but we’re still a few weeks out, I will consider going back to the commissioners and asking for another position or two,” Oliver said. “I can’t tell you if I’m going to do that or when I’m going to do that, but I’m keeping a tight grip on the pulse of things and seeing how that waiting period is once we’re in it.”

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