Walworth County votes to retain state health inspections

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Andrea Anderson
Thursday, March 20, 2014

ELKHORN--Walworth County business owners and employees asked the county board to reject a proposal for the county to take over health inspections from the state.

At a special meeting Thursday afternoon, the board did just that.

The board voted 7-2 to amend an ordinance to restrict the county's department of health and human services from looking into, planning and promoting the possibility of the county completing health inspections while state agencies still provide the service.

If county staff members are to spend time and resources looking into the issue again, they must have prior board approval.

“If it isn't broke, don't fix it,” said Joe Schaefer, a member of the Walworth County Board and the county's health and human services committee board.

Linda Seemeyer, the county's health and human services director, and Jan Ellefsen,  public health officer and manager, had proposed a plan for county workers to take over annual inspections of all 927 establishments in the county by 2018.

Because of state budget cuts and because most counties conduct their own inspections, not all venues are inspected when they should be, and state response times to emergencies are slower than the county's response could be, Seemeyer and Ellefsen claim.

The state Food Safety and Recreational Licensing Section and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are responsible for inspecting and licensing venues that include restaurants, hotels, public swimming pools and water parks, campgrounds and tattoo and body piercing businesses.

The board's vote comes after a health and human services committee meeting Wednesday.

At the meeting, the committee listened to about an hour of public comment on the proposal. People spoke both in favor and against it.

After public comment, the committee passed a motion to halt further discussion and action until July in order to see a two-year summary of county inspections completed by the state. The committee also wanted the county's department of health and human services to put together a preliminary budget based on the state's fee system. The state's inspection schedule runs from July to July.

Because the committee did not recommend action to the county board, the item was held at the committee level. The county board has the ability to call items from the committee and vote on them. The county board voted unanimously to call the item from the committee and discuss it.

Later, county board supervisors Kenneth Monroe and Carl Redenius voted against amending the ordinance.

Monroe voted against amending the ordinance because he wanted more information come July before making a final decision.

“I agree that the staff did not come out with all necessary information, but I also believe they should have been given a chance to do that,” Monroe said.

Seemeyer and Ellefsen were at the public comment period Wednesday and the vote Thursday.

“We would have never brought it forward if we didn't think it was needed and wouldn't improve the health and safety of this county,” Seemeyer said after the vote. “I still feel it would have. Having said that, we're not surprised. We knew there was a large organized effort (against it).”

The department of health and human services will focus on other things that can benefit the county, Seemeyer said.

Jim D'Alessandro, owner of Harborview Motel in Williams Bay, spoke in opposition to the county taking over licensing and inspections at the meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

He said he likes the degree of separation with state employees completing inspections because it keeps out personal agendas and vendettas that could harm businesses.  He also said he doesn't see any flaws in the system.

“I'm kind of struggling here to see where the problem is and why the county needs to take it over,” D'Alessandro said.

The owner of the 12-room motel was happy with the county's vote.

“I'm quite pleased,” D'Alessandro said. “I think it's an example of the county board listening to people and what they want.”

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