Our Views: Local plan might heal what ails inspections in Walworth County

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Friday, March 7, 2014

When officials linked a Thanksgiving food-borne illness to a Walworth County restaurant and grocery, the state took 15 days to respond.

That should alarm residents, and it exposes a problem.

Some people in the food business might oppose the plan, but if Walworth County can take over health inspections and improve service without raising costs, the idea makes sense. After all, inspectors don't just serve businesses. The public is a constituency, too, and safety must be a priority.

Linda Seemeyer, county health and human services director, says most counties do their own inspections. Couple that with state budget cuts, and regular rounds by state inspectors are lagging and responses to emergencies can be slow.

Seemeyer and Janis Ellefsen, county public health officer and manager, say the state even believes the county could do a better job.

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

Inspectors were responsible for checking almost 800 licensed Walworth County facilities in 2013, including businesses that sell food, school cafeterias and even tattoo and body-piercing parlors.

Ellefsen said the county confirmed seven outbreaks of food-borne illnesses the past 18 months. An outbreak involves two or more people stricken from the same drink or food. Ellefsen points out that federal health experts believe 95 percent of people never report such illnesses.

Regarding the Thanksgiving problem, Ellefsen told reporter Andrea Anderson: “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.”

A public hearing is set for Wednesday, March 19, on a five-year plan Seemeyer and Ellefsen are pitching to have the county take over inspections. Not everyone likes the idea. Among them is Joe Schaefer, a Walworth County Board supervisor, member of the county's health and human services board and longtime owner of the Ye Olde Hotel Bar and Restaurant in Lyons. Also opposed is Chris Marsicano, longtime co-owner of Delavan's Village Supper Club and an officer in the Wisconsin Tavern League and in its Walworth County chapter.

Business licensing fees of between $45 and $685 pay for inspections. If Walworth County conducts inspections, the proceeds from fees stay in the county. Some business owners fear the plan to add up to 2.5 full-time county employees might push fees higher. At a time when some businesses struggle just to pay utility bills during this frigid winter, those concerns are understandable.

The proposal from Seemeyer and Ellefsen, however, is not to increase inspections but to hire local people who can partner with fire departments and other local agencies to better serve the county.

The county board, expected to consider the plan at a special meeting Thursday, March 20, should weigh whether the plan would push costs higher. Business owners deserve empathy. Supervisors also should realize, however, that there's no guarantee rising costs won't push state licensing fees higher.

Given that most counties already do their own inspections, if Walworth County's plan could provide prompter responses to illness outbreaks and serve businesses and residents at reasonable costs, local control might be the best remedy.

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