Not all business like proposal to localize Walworth County health inspections

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Andrea Anderson
Sunday, March 2, 2014

ELKHORN — Not all business owners are on board with a proposal for Walworth County to take over health inspections from the state.

Because of state budget cuts and because the majority of counties now conduct their own inspections, not all venues are being inspected when they should be and state response times to emergencies are slower than the county could respond, said Linda Seemeyer, Walworth County health and human services director.

“It's not good," Seemeyer said.

That's not to say the state isn't trying.

Three state food and health inspectors are assigned to inspect the 783 facilities licensed by the state Food Safety and Recreational Licensing Section, said Chuck Warzecha, director of the state Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health Programs.

The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection inspects the remaining 144 facilities.

Seemeyer and Janis Ellefsen, Walworth County public health officer and manager, are proposing a five-year plan for county workers to take over the inspections. The two will share the proposal at a public hearing Wednesday, March 19.

Joe Schaefer, a member of the Walworth County Board and the county's health and human services board, is against the county taking over inspections.

Schaefer has owned the Ye Olde Hotel Bar and Restaurant in Lyons for 45 years. He said his restaurant is inspected annually and believes the state is doing an adequate job.

Licensing fees would fund the county inspection plan, but it is too early to project how much it would cost, how much the fees would go up or if fees would go up at all, Ellefsen and Seemeyer said.

If the county takes over inspections, no more than 2.5 full-time employees would be added, Ellefsen said.

Schaefer said he has heard plenty of people criticize the county's permit and licensing fees. He said he couldn't speak for every business owner but said he wouldn't want to pay a higher fee.

The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the state Food Safety and Recreational Licensing Section are responsible for inspecting venues. Both are based in Madison.

In 2013, the state Food Safety and Recreational Licensing Section completed 796 inspections on the 783 facilities it licenses, said Jim Kaplanek, chief of the licensing section.

The 783 facilities include 402 restaurants. The state completed 412 restaurant inspections in 2013, Kaplanek said.

The 412 inspections include pre-inspections, routine inspections and second inspections. The numbers show that the section is not quite able to inspect all the licensed restaurants each year, Kaplanek said.

Ellefsen and Seemeyer said the state is working hard to complete inspections, but they believe the county can do a better job.

“They're really trying hard, but the state is also really supportive because they believe it can be done on the local level,” Ellefsen said.

The point of the county taking over health inspections would be to ensure all 927 establishments in the county are inspected on schedule. It also would allow for a faster response time when an illness outbreak or emergency happens, Ellefsen said.

The state took 15 days to respond to a Thanksgiving outbreak of food-borne illness at a restaurant and grocery store, Ellefsen said.

“When my communicable disease nurse knew they were definitely tied to a facility or establishment, she would have walked next door and told the environmental health specialist who, within hours, would have been out to the facility to inspect,” Ellefsen said.

Local inspections would keep licensing fees in the county. Local inspectors would partner with other local agencies such as fire departments or building and zoning offices.

“It's local control, local employees, local business, all partnering together to try and provide the safest and the best for our residents, our citizens, and our visitors,” Ellefsen said.

Warzecha and Kaplanek echoed Ellefsen's statement. Both said counties can develop better relationships with facility owners and offer better service.  

“Having quicker, more attentive service for those restaurants is really quite helpful,” Warzecha said. “We still make it a priority. We can often be there same day, but it's not quite as easy for us … The level of service definitely improves.”

The state fees could go up in the next few years, Warzecha said. State licensed facilities pay anywhere between $45 and $685 to be licensed and inspected, according to a state Department of Health and Human Services public hearing handout. 

Other business owners feel the same as Schaefer, saying keeping businesses open and profitable in this economy has been difficult.

The possibility of higher fees is not something businesses can handle, Chris Marsicano said.

Marsicano and his brother David have owned the Village Supper Club in Delavan for more than 30 years. He also is secretary and treasurer for the Walworth County chapter of the Tavern League of Wisconsin and senior vice president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin. He said the Village Supper Club is inspected yearly and sees no reason for the county to take the inspections over.

“There have been no major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, of deaths from food-borne illness in Walworth County in all my years of business,” Marsicano said. “It's working now, and I don't think, at this time, we should burden the small business people. We just can't afford it.”

Ellefsen said Walworth County had seven confirmed outbreaks of food-borne illness in the last 18 months.

An outbreak is defined as two or more people contracting an illness from the same drink or food. Confirmed means samples from the people tested positive at the state Lab of Hygiene in Madison.

Ellefsen said seven outbreaks might not seem like many, but she noted that the Centers for Disease Control estimates 95 percent of people never report feeling ill after eating something or somewhere.

Sixty-five health departments out of ninety-two in the state are contracted agents of the state, meaning they complete the health inspections the state previously did.

The five-year plan would ease the county into taking over all licensing and inspections from the state by 2017 or 2018.

The county already took a step in that direction in January by creating its own water-testing laboratory. Instead of sending water samples from private wells that serve public needs to Madison to be tested, tests are done at the county health and human services building.

The county spent $30 per sample for tests in Madison. Savings from the county conducting its own tests will pay for the cost of the local lab in 18 months, Seemeyer said.

Taking on health inspections could raise the Department of Health and Human Services from a Level 2 facility to a Level 3 facility. With the step up would come more grant funding for all of its programs.

If the plan is approved at a special March 20 county board meeting, inspections would not change. Ordinances would need to be adjusted to match the potential changes, Seemeyer said.

“We would follow the same rules and regulations the state would follow,” Seemeyer said. “We're not making up new things at all.”

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