By Craig W. Anderson

San Joaquin Farm Bureau squared off with the San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department (EHD) in April, arguing against proposed significant fee increases for underground storage tanks (UST). The proposed adjustments include the California Environmental Reporting System (CERS) processing fee and the UST program fees.

"Farm Bureau and Bruce Blodgett made a difference in fighting this issue," said SJFB President Jim Ferrari. "Bruce spoke to the issue and had these increases been approved, compared to other counties, ours would have been outrageous. This would have really hurt the guys with tanks in the ground. And this is a good example of Farm Bureau working for its members."

"The proposed fee increases of thousands of dollars for San Joaquin County would have been the highest in California," said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. "This increase would have had a significant negative impact on those who store and sell fuel to farmers who need fuel." The proposed fee increases resembled, he said, a Cadillac program laying the cost on the backs of businesses via increased fees without seriously considering other options.

Proposed fees were distressing

The New Tank Installation Plan Review/Inspections cost for the current eight-hour minimum initial fee is $1,216; the proposed new fee was for a 20 hour minimum fee of $3,040 "to be paid up front" according to documents provided by the EHD and a current UST facility fee of $641 would have increased to $1,500. 

Currently, the total fees are $3,620; the proposed fees would increase to $6,827.

Workshop reveals expensive plan

The April EHD Fee Proposal Workshop notice attempted to explain the need for more money, noting, "All EHD fees are reviewed and evaluated to ensure revenues generated from fees are appropriate and sufficient to meet the expected costs of each program."

The proposed fee increases were "to close the current, significant gap between program revenues and net county costs over a two year period." 

Nonproductive staff hired

An aspect of the proposed increases that was particularly annoying, Blodgett said, was that the EHD was "Paying for training because their new employees were nonproductive and needed to be trained to be productive, so that’s included in their calculations. Unbelievable," Ferrari said. "I think the EHD would do better to hire knowledgeable staff in the first place, instead of forcing the agricultural community to bear that burden."

Supervisors praised

After the April workshop, Blodgett and Farm Bureau marshalled their forces for the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting in June that would decide the issue. Blodgett, who spoke on behalf of Farm Bureau, said, "It was excellent that the supervisors took this seriously and felt the proposed fees were unacceptable."

Prior to the meeting, SJFB sent a letter to the supervisors detailing its position and, said Blodgett, "The supervisors were poised and ready to go on this issue." The supervisors meeting was a day-long affair with the UST issue being addressed at 3 p.m.  "We – SJFB – stuck around until the end after most of the audience had left."

"We would like to thank Supervisors Bob Elliott, Tom Patti, Miguel Villapudua and Chuck Winn for supporting a more reasonable approach," Blodgett said.

Marketplace imbalance

The proposed fees would have created an uneven playing field with fuel buyers going to other counties to fulfill their fuel needs, avoiding San Joaquin County because of its overly expensive product. "They could go to Sacramento or Stanislaus counties for product, leaving San Joaquin out in the cold," Blodgett said.

Both Ferrari and Blodgett agreed that Supervisor Chuck Winn had a major impact on Farm Bureau’s success.

Proposed increases capped at 50 percent

Following the supervisor’s meeting, Blodgett said, "The supervisors did respond to the concerns we raised earlier [at the April workshop] and that I reiterated today. While any increase stinks, the supervisors capped any proposed increase at 50 percent, much better than the 100 to 300 percent increases that were proposed." The EHD staff was upset by the decision to cap proposed increases at 50 percent and aid this would hurt services.