Grand County mulls localizing restaurant inspections
Grand is one of only four counties that relies on the state to conduct its restaurant inspections, and commissioners will be exploring ideas on how to provide those services locally. Restaurant owners in the county's west end had initially approached commissioners, complaining that health inspections from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment were inconsistent. On March 31, Commissioner Merrit Linke, Commissioner Gary Bumgarner and County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran attended a meeting with state health officials to bring these concerns to their attention and develop a resolution. While commissioners described the meeting as productive, they also learned they were one of only a handful of counties still depending on the state to do restaurant inspections. "It was a little bit of a surprise," Linke said. "There are only four counties that still have the state do the restaurant inspections, us, Jackson, Moffat and Garfield." According to Jeff Lawrence, CDPHE's division director for environmental health and stainability, the state had taken on the responsibility of conducting inspections for many of the state's rural counties decades ago. That all changed in 2008, when Colorado legislators passed the Public Health Act. "Basically, the base message was that it didn't matter which county you reside in, the level and expectation of services should be the same," Lawrence said. Several counties figured they could best provide the new uniform set of standards locally. Most recently, six counties in the San Luis Valley banded together to provide restaurant inspection services regionally so they no longer have to use state inspectors. Commissioners in Grand County could do the same with nearby counties in the northwest. "We are considering it," Linke said. "The state didn't come right out and say it, but it seems that's what they want to happen. They want counties to do it themselves." Lawrence said that's because counties are better able to address their residents' needs. "We believe (inspection services) would be better provided at a local level," he said. "When we go to these communities, we go out of our Denver office, so to respond to issues brought forward is sometimes difficult." The state department isn't pushing any change, however, and Linke said commissioners will need to consider the feasibility of a transition to local inspections. "The downside is in Grand County, it involves a lot of driving," Linke said. "It would require an additional staff person and an additional salary." According to Lawrence, restaurant inspections for the state's four lingering rural counties amounts to one full-time equivalent staff, although the responsibilities are typically divided between two or three people in his office who have other duties as well. Grand County has around 175 retail food operations spread out through the county, most requiring inspections twice a year. CDPHE would provide some funding to Grand County if it took over its own restaurant, child care and school inspections, amounting to about $58,000. The state would provide another $5,000 if Grand and Jackson counties partnered up on those inspections. The state would also provide a data system, computer and training for a local inspector. For the time being, as CDPHE continues to send inspectors to rural northwest areas, Grand County commissioners seem to have reached an agreement on the inconsistent inspection results gnawing at restaurant owners in the Kremlling area, who have a different inspector than restaurants in the east end. "We want more dialogue, not regulation, and for inspections to be more educational," Linke said. "I felt like we made progress … I think there was productive, good dialogue." Among the improvements CDPHE is looking at implementing is providing a checklist for restaurants so owners know what they need to do to stay up to snuff. They'll also be working to train inspection staff so they are able to arrive at the same conclusion in the same types of inspection situations. "What we discovered through dialogue is being able to communicate those needs in a manner not viewed as burdensome or problematic," Lawrence said. "It's just trying to work and collaborate with each other so we reach the shared desired outcome of safe food." Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.