‘The County messed up’ — and now homeowners have to pay

Improperly passed septics continue to leach consequences

Former Tama County homeowner Andrew Smith pictured with his dog Rizzo in a photo used on Smith’s GoFundMe webpage where he is seeking to raise $13,000 in order to pay for the fix to an incorrectly passed septic system at his former residence on Union Grove Lake. PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIEL SMITH

UNION GROVE LAKE – Controversy surrounding payouts the Tama County Board of Health attempted to make this past July to two homeowners whose septics were improperly passed by the previous sanitarian continues to leach consequences, having now ensnared a former homeowner in a possible lawsuit worth thousands of dollars.

Last week Andrew Smith, formerly of rural Garwin and now a resident of Kalispell, Mont., began working to raise $13,000 through the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe in order to reimburse the sellers of his former Union Grove Lake home for the cost of what turned out to be a failed septic system.

Smith has titled his fundraiser ‘The County Messed Up, Now I have to Pay.’

“In 2021, I purchased my first home. A one-bedroom cabin on Union Grove Lake in Tama County, Iowa. I had just started my training as an electrician. An opportunity came up for me to continue my training in Montana near my grandparents. So in June of 2022, I put my house up for sale … and headed out for the Big Sky Country,” Smith writes on his GoFundMe page.

Smith’s cabin home — located on C Avenue on the east side of Union Grove Lake — sold quickly in mid-August 2022, he writes, to the current homeowners which real estate records indicate to be Robert and Shelly Boley.

Andrew Smith’s former cabin home located on the east side of Union Grove Lake pictured on Tuesday, August 29. The cabin’s new owners have asked Smith to pay for the upgrades they were required to make to the septic system after the county’s former sanitarian, Todd Apfel erroneously passed it. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

It was shortly after the sale that Smith’s problems began.

“I received a notice from the Tama County Board of Health that my septic system failed and had to be repaired,” Smith writes. “The new owners went ahead and made the repairs and then petitioned the Tama County Health Board to help pay for the repairs since it was their [sanitarian] who wrongly approved an upgrade [to the septic system] that was done in 2019.”

Tama-Grundy Publishing previously reported on the Boleys’ septic in an article published this past June. During a March meeting, the Tama Co. Board of Health approved reimbursement payments to both the Boleys and Ashley Steven – who also purchased a home in rural Gladbrook with what turned out to be an erroneously passed septic – to help cover the cost of their septic upgrades.

The board approved reimbursing the Boleys $5,200 – 50% of the cost to fix the septic system – and Steven $7,500.

Problems with both septics’ Time of Transfer (ToT) inspections date back to 2018/19 under former Sanitarian Todd Apfel with the issues only coming to light recently due to the work of Sanitarian Chris Behrens who started in the role in May of 2021 following Apfel’s resignation.

Payments to both the Boleys and Steven were to be made on July 1 of this year but were stopped by the Board of Health during a joint meeting with the county’s Board of Supervisors in June — a meeting the supervisors requested. Action by the health board arose only after attorney Carlton Salmons, who represents the Board of Supervisors, said in a heated exchange that such payments would fall outside of Iowa’s two-year statute of limitations.

That decision, Smith writes on his GoFundMe page, “left the new owners of my property holding the cost for repairs totaling $12,232.41.”

This past August, Smith received another piece of bad news – an email from a law firm representing the Boleys notifying him that they were requesting he pay for the septic system upgrade — or they would be taking him to court.

“Being 25 and just starting out in my career, I don’t have that kind of money, and I don’t feel I should have to pay for a mistake made by the Tama County [Sanitarian],” Smith stated in conclusion on his GoFundMe page. “I also don’t feel it is right for the current owners to have to pay for this either.”

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Last week during the regular meeting of the Tama Co. Board of Supervisors, discussion and action over the septic payments continued during a public hearing held on a proposed decrease to the Tama Co. Board of Health’s FY2024 budget in the amount of $51,000 – the amount, previously approved by the supervisors, that the health board had earmarked toward septic system payouts this year.

Behrens, the county’s Sanitarian, was in attendance at the August 21 meeting.

“Cory Frank has been out there. He agrees with my decision. I’ve had other sanitarians from Iowa County … from Black Hawk County look at this. It is a clear fail,” Behrens said in regard to Steven’s former septic system.

Frank, with the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources, handles the state’s Time of Transfer Program.

“To be honest with you, this is the tip of the iceberg,” Behrens continued. “I mean there’s case after case after case after case that Carlton [Salmons] made go away when I first started out here. And there’s going to be case after case after case.”

Also during the meeting, Behrens said he had reached out to Supervisor Bill Faircloth and invited the entire board to sit down and meet with both Frank and the Tama Co. Board of Health to discuss the payments. Faircloth — who represents District 2 which includes the Garwin area where Smith’s former cabin is located — rejected the invitation, Behrens said.

“We’ve had our differences for two years,” Faircloth said of Behrens. “From the first time Chris came into this office, he never respected the supervisors.”

Faircloth later read a letter by attorney Kayla Sproul reiterating the same legal reasons for not paying the homeowners previously cited by the retiring Salmons.

While Smith was not present at the Monday meeting, Ashley Steven was in attendance. She informed the supervisors that her lawyer is ready to sue due to estoppel – a legal principle used to prevent an individual or entity from essentially going back on their word.

“If you’re going to be illegal, at least be a human being,” Steven said.

Following the public hearing, the supervisors passed, 2-1, the resolution to refuse payments to both the Boleys and Steven, while rescinding $51,000 from the Board of Health’s budget. Supervisor Curt Hilmer was the only no vote. The $51,000 will now revert back to the county’s general fund.

As they passed the resolution, one of Steven’s relatives spoke out.

“Well, gentlemen, I’m outta here. We’ll see you gentlemen in court. This was your decision. Be proud of it. Hold your heads high, you stupid f***s.”

Doing the right thing

In the wake of the payments being canceled, Tama-Grundy Publishing reached out to Smith’s father, Daniel Smith, by email regarding his son’s fundraising efforts and the continuing septic system controversy.

“First and foremost let me make it very clear that Andy, my son, does not want to vilify anyone,” Daniel Smith wrote in an email. “His desire is to simply right a wrong by helping the Boleys recover the funds they had to spend to bring a wrongly approved septic system to code.”

Daniel said his son does not have $13,000 but also does not want to settle the issue in court which is why he chose to start the fundraiser.

“Andrew did sell his house to the Boleys,” Daniel confirmed. “It was their attorney that sent the letter requesting payment for the cost of the repair. That letter stated that if Andy did not cover the costs they would take it to court. What else could they do? Can you blame [the Boleys]? Tama County left them with no choice.”

Daniel further stated that the Boleys’ attorney is requesting 100% of the cost to fix the septic system. At this point, his son – still living and working in Montana – has not retained an attorney of his own, but he is questioning how doing everything seemingly right could have turned out so poorly.

“Other than the letter he received from the Boleys’ attorney, he has had no contact with anyone concerning the matter that I know of,” Daniel said. “I did have a conversation with Mr. Behrens who assured me that the Boleys chose to make the most cost effective fix for the situation.”

As the fallout from the Board of Supervisors’ decision continues to spread like a faulty leach field, more and more unwitting current and former homeowners – like Andrew Smith, the Boleys and Ashley Steven — might soon be left wondering how doing the right and proper thing could lead to such a mess.

As this article went to press, Andrew Smith’s GoFundMe fundraiser had raised $400 of its $13,000 goal.