A decline in El Paso County restaurant inspections could leave Pikes Peak region residents feeling a little queasy.
With more than 2,400 restaurants to check — and a strained budget — the county health department admits that it can’t keep up with state-mandated inspections.
Colorado state law requires that food service establishments be inspected twice a year for cleanliness, food temperature and employee hygiene. The checklist includes hundreds of items.
It’s a big job, and one that isn’t being done correctly in El Paso County. And while illnesses aren’t always tracked, complaints are.
“And they’ve doubled, tripled, quadrupled,” said Rick Miklich, prevention services division director for the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment. “We investigate the most egregious complaints in 24 hours, but some of them tend to be frivolous. We definitely have more valid complaints now.”
The county cut the department’s budget several years ago and as it struggles with a $16 million shortfall, the funding has never returned to previous levels — and the health department has been forced to cut staff and reduce services, said Rosemary Bakes-Martin.
“We have a lot of hungry mouths to feed,” said El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg. “And the top of that list is the criminal justice center and the sheriff’s department. Our second largest budget is the Department of Human Services.”
Funding for the health department comes largely from the state and the department falls under the Colorado Department of Public Health, Bensberg said. Any changes in funding should be state-directed.
“Maybe the state needs to step in, and change the funding allocation,” he said. “The health department is the county’s in name only. We only supplement their budget, and it’s my understanding that we do it at a rate higher than state statute requires.”
Unable to meet the state law’s requirements of twice yearly inspections, the department’s goal is to inspect every restaurant once a year. But officials readily admit they aren’t meeting that goal either.
“We’re far from it,” Miklich said. “And from the state mandates. I have a certain ideal in mind — what the ideal food inspection program should be like. But now, we’re struggling. We should be doing more.”
The department says that if it receives no additional funding, it puts businesses at risks. A scenario in which the county’s funding remains flat — as it does for 2008 budget year — increases the need to close restaurants with violations at least temporarily, because the department will be unable to complete quick follow-up inspections.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues no penalties for counties that are unable to comply with state law. Barbara Hruska, director of the consumer protection division, said El Paso County is doing the best it can with limited resources.
“First of all, we know El Paso County is working hard to provide food protection services, and we believe it has a good food protection program,” she said. “We realize there are budget constraints; that’s a problem everywhere, even here at the state level.”
Hruska said the state’s health department does not have “total control” of the county-level systems.
“It’s up to each county to control their resources,” she said. “We believe public health services are best delivered at the local level, but we recognize that each has difficulties and challenges. There are no penalties for not complying.”
Miklich said the department has the support of the county’s restaurant industry, and claims that the relationship isn’t adversarial.
“We don’t go in, issue threats and citations and come back to close them down,” he said. “We see the job as a partnership; we work to educate about how people are out of compliance and document what we do.”
Luke Travins, co-owner of Concept Restaurants — a group that includes downtown eateries Jose Muldoon’s, Old Chicago and The Ritz — said he has not noticed a lack of inspections.
“It’s important to maintain the public health — and someone could get very sick from unhealthy, unclean environments,” he said. “Those protections need to continue.”
And although the department said it sometimes has to delay the opening of new restaurants — or remodeled ones — Travins said inspections for a remodeled Jose Muldoon’s went smoothly, with no delays.
“My restaurants are inspected once or twice a year, with follow-ups if they need them,” he said. “After remodeling Jose’s we went through several inspections before we reopened. They were very prompt, very responsive.”
Rarely, the department issues civil penalties — fines for repeat offenders. And in the most egregious cases, it is able to close the facility.
To cope with the decline in dollars, Miklich and his staff created a “triage” system. Places like Starbucks aren’t inspected as often as the Antlers Hilton because the service offered is very different.
“It’s a risk-based system,” he said. “Because our budget is so austere, we’re putting resources where they will do the most good.”
Even complaints from the public are triaged according to importance. Food borne illnesses are taken seriously — when they occur.
“Most people don’t understand how these viruses work, so they call if they get sick immediately after eating,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. Most illnesses take between 10 and 72 hours.”
Norovirus — caused by direct skin contact with food — is the biggest problem, he said. But issues uncovered during inspections seem to change every few years.
“A few years ago, it was food temperature. People weren’t keeping food hot or cold enough,” Miklich said. “And now, it’s that there’s too much direct skin contact on the food. Food should not be handled; workers should wear gloves.”
Bensberg is skeptical about the department’s triage program.
“I’ll use the example of my favorite neighborhood bar and restaurant,” he said. “They have been inspected twice a year for the past couple of years. But despite those inspections, the health department neglected to tell them about hot water heater requirements. They went through seven kinds of hell trying to meet those regulations — and they’ve never had a single customer complaint.”
To some extent, health department officials agree with Bensberg, recognizing the county’s budget crisis.
“What we want is local control over the fees that we charge for the inspections,” Miklich said. “We think since these services are performed locally, that it makes sense to control the fees. But we don’t have any control over them, and the fees set by the state do not cover the costs of the inspections.”