Whiteside County food establishments could see higher inspection fees

July 12, 2018 GMT

ROCK FALLS – The Whiteside County Health Department is seeking fee increases from food establishments to help cover rising regulatory costs.

The health department’s environmental health division is responsible for doing inspections at a variety of businesses that provide food and beverages to the public – everything from restaurants to day care centers.

A driving force in the fee increase request is the state’s mandated switch to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration food code. The code must be implemented by Jan. 1.

Although there won’t be significant changes in the inspection process, the new documentation system will require technology upgrades.

“The language and coding system will be different, and there is a different format for violations,” said Gene Johnston, director of environmental health at the department.

Reports that are sent to the state must be more detailed under the new code.

“We don’t want to do double entries and we’ll need to use tablets,” Johnston said. “Everything will be web-based, so we’ll need to buy expensive software.”

Johnston and Whiteside County Health Administrator Beth Fiorini presented the proposed fee hikes to the County Board’s health and social services committee earlier this month. She said the first-year hardware costs would be about $24,000 and the new system would increase annual expenses by an estimated $18,000 after that.

“The environmental health department is entirely funded by fees and fines – they have no other revenue source – and we haven’t raised environmental fees in 3 years,” Fiorini said.

The department has three full-time food protection inspectors who are responsible for 394 permitted establishments.

In addition to food sanitation, environmental health also handles water, well and sewer inspections and nuisance complaints. Some well and septic fee increases are also proposed.

Even without the food code mandate, the fee increases might have been requested this year.

“We look at the fees every 2 years, so we were due for an increase anyway,” Johnston said. “Our fees are in line with what other counties in our region are charging.”

The proposed increases were made according to the current cost of providing the service rather than an across-the-board percentage bump.

For instance, a restaurant that seats fewer than 100 and has only one cash register would see its annual fee rise from $220 to $330. That fee in surrounding counties ranges from $100 in Carroll County to $600 in DeKalb County.

Prepackaged food sellers, however, would see a much smaller percentage increase. A business with one cash register would see its annual fee increase from $100 to $120. That fee ranges from $50 in Carroll County to $180 in DeKalb County.

Inspectors unofficially will start using the new system in late summer or early fall.

“We’ll need some time to familiarize ourselves with the new format, because there is a pretty big learning curve,” Johnston said.

The County Board is expected to make a decision on the fee increases next month.