MOORLACH UPDATE — Restuarant Inspections — November 26, 2014

Allow me to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Sometimes things move a little slowly at the County of Orange. And when it comes to fee increases, staff wonders if they should even bother doing their jobs of submitting fee increases to the Board of Supervisors. Yesterday’s Board meeting confirmed their suspicions. In spite of increasing costs, thanks to the adoption of pension plan formula increases by previous Boards and other inflationary pressures, the majority of this Board has been in no mood to vote for legitimate and necessary fee increases.

The most recent agenda item concerned restaurant inspections and ratings. This topic was covered earlier this year in MOORLACH UPDATE — Color-Coded Ratings — April 30, 2014, MOORLACH UPDATE — Restaurant Safety — April 28, 2014, MOORLACH UPDATE — Restaurant Rating Redux — March 7, 2014 and earlier in my term, see Restaurant Rating System (my UPDATE for September 29, 2009) for an example.

I recently addressed my views on fee increases in an UPDATE on October 17th that was sent from my personal account, as it was of a campaign nature. I reacted to the subject of a candidate’s hit piece on an opponent. Here’s what I wrote (with some minor editing):

To criticize a City Councilmember or Supervisor for raising fees is the biggest display of ignorance about these positions that one can make.

Let me give an example. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) runs the transit system in Orange County. State law dictates that the taxpayers of the County subsidize 80 percent of the costs of providing bus services, including the costs of purchasing the buses, fuel and maintenance, and the personnel costs required to drive them. The bus riders pay fares equal to 20 percent of the costs. The bus riders are getting a great deal.

If the costs of running the bus system rise, then the fares must also increase. Consequently, in order to meet the state requirements, the OCTA Board must vote for a fare increase.

This is just one example of many that I could provide. Government subsidizes many unique services. Many of them should be borne by the users, either partially or in total. Otherwise, we have an entitled citizenry and elected officials who do not know how to be fair to taxpayers. Consequently, when someone states that they have never voted for a fee increase they do not understand their job or the business math involved.

To not raise fees for specific and rarely used services is to put more of the subsidy on all of the taxpayers. This is not being taxpayer friendly. It is the opposite. Leadership demands that elected officials do the homework and know when the fee increase is just and appropriate.

Going after someone for voting for fee increases, without the proper context, is about as juvenile as it can get in a campaign hit piece. It proves to me that [the candidate] has no clue about the job [he/she] is running for and does not display that [the candidate] has the skill sets and acumen to properly adjudicate the position.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

BONUS: “Conditions of Children in Orange County” will be the topic on Monday, December 1st, for a forum that I am hosting. The invitation, and the related press release, are provided below and if you are able to attend, please feel welcome. At the least, come for the materials, as they are very comprehensive and give a statistical overview on various topics impacting our community.

Restaurant inspections to be reduced

County supervisors reject fee increase needed to maintain current levels.

BY MARTIN WISCKOL, STAFF WRITER

Eating at restaurants in Orange County may have just gotten a bit riskier.

A fee increase needed to maintain the current rate of restaurant inspections in Orange County was rejected Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

During the six years since the last fee hike, county Health Care Agency inspections for restaurants and other food handling establishments have fallen from three annually to two because of staff reductions. Now, some restaurants will be inspected just once a year, according to Richard Sanchez, the county’s assistant director of health.

Supervisors also turned down an option to replace single-color inspection placards at the entrance to restaurants to ones that would be red, yellow or green. The color-coded alternative was intended to make diners more aware of an establishment’s inspection status.

“This is not the right time to increase fees, given the state of the economy,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said after the meeting. “I don’t see this jeopardizing health at all. There’s no public outcry from the public to increase fees.”

The sole supervisor supporting the fee increase was John Moorlach, whose motion to increase fees and implement the red-yellow-green placards died for lack of a second, with no discussion. He was asked about Spitzer’s comment that public health would not be endangered.

“It’s not important until you walk out of a restaurant with a foodborne disease,” Moorlach said. “Then you think maybe there should be hot water, maybe there shouldn’t be cockroaches.”

The Health Care Agency is responsible for inspecting all of the 13,800 food facilities countywide, including restaurants, grocery stores, bars and convenience stores. It must cover its inspection costs with fees generated from those food-handling businesses. Fees start at about $561 annually for a restaurant with 30 seats or fewer.

Because personnel and other overhead increase annually, the inspection program has lost about 7 percent of its staff since 2009, according to a report to county supervisors. The federal Food and Drug Administration suggests three to four inspections per year.

“We recommend two annually for public safety,” Sanchez said. “Now some places will be inspected once a year. We will reduce staff. We will reduce inspections.”

Spitzer pointed out that customers can file complaints about food handling businesses with the Health Care Agency. There’s an online complaint form, or customers can call the agency at 714-433-6000.

“If there’s an issue, restaurants get shut down,” he said.

A 2008 county grand jury report called for the county to post a graded rating of A, B or C at the entrance to restaurants.

The restaurant industry successfully lobbied against the change, and the county continued a system in which placards look virtually identical except that they say either Pass, Reinspection Due or Closed.

A grand jury report this year suggested the color-coded system “to improve the visibility of restaurant inspection placards,” with the idea that it would be more acceptable to restaurant owners.

“They didn’t give a lot of pushback to the red-yellow-green,” Moorlach said.

Supervisors were given two options – a 5.4 percent fee hike without changing the placards or a 5.6 percent hike that would implement the new system. Instead, supervisors declined to vote on either.

“I’m conservative and don’t support tax increases,” Moorlach said. “But this is not a tax – this is a fee related to a service. The people who benefit from this should be the ones who pay for it.”

Contact the writer: mwisckol

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