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Aurora

Board kills restaurant inspection plan



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March 25, 2014 | 01:34 PM
ELKHORN — The Walworth County Board has told the county's Department of Health and Human Services that it doesn't want to invest another second on a plan that would have local officials inspect restaurants and other facilities.

During a March 19 public hearing, restaurant and tavern owners told the board that the state does a good job inspecting their businesses, that they were concerned about fee increases and local inspectors having biases.

On the other side, health officials expressed concerns about restaurants not being inspected regularly by the state and that local control would provide faster response times should an outbreak occurs. Pat Grove, who retired last year as the county's public health nurse, said there are restaurants in Walworth County that she won't eat at because of fears of food contamination.

During a special session board meeting on March 20, the board approved an ordinance that states inspecting licensed facilities "shall not be a priority" of the health and human services department. It also prohibits the department from investing any county resources, including staff time, to the issue without approval from the elected supervisors.

County health officials developed a five-year plan in which the county would take over inspecting restaurants, taverns, hotels, motels, tattoo and piercing parlors and other facilities from the state. The cost of hiring inspectors would be covered by the fees paid for by the establishments. County officials said the tax levy would not increase.

In the last inspection cycle, more than 100 Walworth County facilities were not inspected by the state. There are more than 900 licensed facilities in Walworth County.

Chuck Warzecha, who is the director for the state's Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, which handles inspections, said his department is projecting that it will inspect all of the licensed facilities in Walworth County during the next inspection cycle. However, Warzecha spoke in favor of the county handling the inspections.

In the last 18 months, seven outbreaks of food-borne gastrointestinal illness were reported in Walworth County. Jan Ellefsen, the county's public health nurse, said that for an incident to be reported as an outbreak, two or more people must report being sick. In those cases, DNA samples are scientifically linked to the bacteria at an establishment.

During the public hearing, several restaurant owners questioned whether these outbreaks occurred at church picnics or potlucks. Following the March 20 hearing, Ellefsen said all seven cases involved state-inspected facilities.

After the public hearing on March 19, the County's Health and Human Services Committee voted 3-2 to table the matter until July.

The committee wanted to hold off on the issue until July because that is when the state's inspection cycle ends and it would give the health department more time to gather information and establish a clearer fee structure.

However, on March 20, the board voted 7-2 to kill the issue. Supervisors Ken Monroe and Carl Redenius voted in opposition.

What was said against it

Jim D'Alessandro, a Williams Bay business owner and Elkhorn alderman, said that he is concerned about potential biases when local officials inspect restaurants.

"I like that the (current inspectors) are not from Walworth County," D'Alessandro said. "It is nice to have somebody who is separate from everybody else."

Susan Pruessing, the marketing and public relations director for the Walworth County Fair, also spoke out against local inspections on behalf of the fair board.

She said that state employees inspect the fair's vendors, which include numerous civic groups, prior to the fair beginning.

Pruessing said the fair board feels confident that "we have been able to provide a safe environment."

Dennis Salverson, the owner of Salvo's Coyote Grill in Whitewater, said the state inspectors are good at their jobs.

"I've never seen the need to create another bureaucracy," Salverson said. He also expressed concerns that there were too many unknowns about future fees.

Brandon Scholz, the president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said that his organization has opposed every county takeover of restaurant inspections.

He said some his members have stores in multiple counties, and, although the same inspection rules apply statewide, the interpretations of those rules vary by location.

Randy Cruse, who owns Randy's Fun Hunter's Brewery in Whitewater, said that he has been inspected each of his 42 years in business.

Cruse added that restaurant owners have an added incentive to ensure sanitary conditions are met.

"The last thing we want as a restaurant owner is for someone to be ill from eating at our restaurant," he said.

What was said in favor of it

Sara Nichols, the clinic manager of open arms free clinic, said that she was a "firm believer" in local agents of public health.

"The local agents have a motive to protect their friends, their families and their communities," Nichols said. "We matter the most."

Grove said that the county had considered taking over restaurant inspections for the past decade.

"It isn't a new (issue). It was previously in my desk drawer for more than 10 years," Grove said.

Grove said that the state used to inspect facilities for lead. However, the state eventually pushed the responsibility onto the county.

"What I see in the future is, as the state is losing program money, they will eventually not be servicing restaurant inspections...Walworth County will get a letter one day, just as we did with the lead inspections, that said we will no longer service your county. Please take it from here," she said . "I think we need to be prepared."

In response to questions from Supervisor Jerry Grant, Grove said that there are restaurants in the county she won't eat at because she is afraid the food could be tainted.

Grant asked most of the speakers if they had ever been sick from eating at a restaurant in Walworth County. He also asked them if there were restaurants in the county that they refused to eat at because of fears of tainted food.

All of the restaurant owners said they had no fears of food contamination at county establishments. However, several people who spoke in favor of the proposal said there were restaurants that they refuse to dine at.Cruse added that restaurant owners have an added incentive to ensure sanitary conditions are met.

"The last thing we want as a restaurant owner is for someone to be ill from eating at our restaurant," he said.

What was said in favor of it

Sara Nichols, the manager of Open Arms Free Clinic, said that she was a "firm believer" in local agents of public health.

"The local agents have a motive to protect their friends, their families and their communities," Nichols said. "We matter the most."

Grove said that the county has considered taking over restaurant inspections for the past decade.

"It isn't a new (issue). It was previously in my desk drawer for more than 10 years," Grove said.

Grove said that the state used to inspect facilities for lead. However, the state eventually pushed the responsibility onto the county.

"What I see in the future is, as the state is losing program money, they will eventually not be servicing restaurant inspections" she said.

In response to questions from Supervisor Jerry Grant, Grove said that there are restaurants in the county she won't eat at because she is afraid the food could be tainted.

Grant asked most of the speakers if they had ever been sick from eating at a restaurant in Walworth County.

He also asked them if there were restaurants in the county that they refused to eat at because of fears of tainted food. All of the restaurant owners said they had no fears of food contamination at county establishments. However, several people who spoke in favor of the proposal said there were restaurants that they refuse to dine at.

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