People speak out for, against Walworth County taking over health inspections from state

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Andrea Anderson
Thursday, March 20, 2014

ELKHORN—Discussion on Walworth County assuming responsibilities for health inspections from the state has been tabled until July, unless county board members motion to call the item out of committee and vote on its future Thursday at a special meeting. 

After the public spoke for a little more than an hour both for and against the proposal, committee citizen representative William Wucherer introduced a motion that would later pass 4-2. County board members Joseph Schaefer and Jerry Grant voted against the motion.

The motion was to halt further discussion and action until the committee could see a two-year summary of county inspections completed by the state and for 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.

“Now at least we are going to have an opportunity to look at how well the state is doing at inspections (and) secondarily it will give Jan (Ellefsen), as the health officer, a chance to propose a budget-specific inspection program," Wucherer said.

Schaefer said he wanted to “take the bull by its horns” and make a recommendation to the county board Thursday.

“The county board has a job to do and they should do it,” he said.

The purpose of Thursday's special meeting is to make a final decision on the matter. Even though the committee did not make an official recommendation to the county board, the board has the opportunity to determine the fate of the proposal through motions, said David Bretl, county administrator.

Linda Seemeyer, Walworth County health and human services director, and Ellefsen, Walworth County public health officer and manager, are leading the proposed five-year plan for county workers to take over inspections of all 927 establishments in the county by 2018.

Due to state budget cuts and because most counties 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's possible response time could be, Seemeyer and Ellefsen claim.

“Our goal, again: protect and prevent” Ellefsen said in a brief statement before public comment began.

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.

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, in an earlier interview. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection inspects the other 144 facilities.

At Wednesday's meeting Warzecha spoke in favor of the county completing the health inspections, saying it would be a “more effective model” than having the state conduct them.

“We know it can be better and we believe the long-term approach that would serve Walworth County better would be the local approach,” Warzecha said.

Jim D'Alessandro, owner of Harborview Motel in Williams Bay, is opposed to county employees completing inspections because of potential personal agendas and vendettas.

“It's nice to have a degree of separation,” D'Alessandro said about state inspectors. “I like that they're not from Walworth County.”

He also said having inspectors who see venues in other parts of the state is an opportunity to receive good advice and information on how facilities, like his 12-room hotel, operate.

Sara Nichols, clinic manager of Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, said she has 15 years of public health experience in Connecticut and Wisconsin and is in favor of county employees completing health inspections.

“Public health protects all people in a community,” Nichols said. “Both my education and personal experience has made me a personal believer in local agents.”

Among those against the possible change is Dennis Salverson, owner of Coyote Grill in Whitewater.

“I have never seen the need to create another bureaucracy,” he said.

Salverson said he is concerned with a potential rise in fees.

Licensing fees would fund the county inspection plan. It has not been determined how much taking on the inspections would cost, if fees would rise and, if so, by how much. Licensing fee rates would be set by the state until 2018, after which the county board would determine them, Ellefsen said.

“We (business owners) can't afford more fees … I don't need more fees,” Salverson said.

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