The Guilford County Health Division has fallen way behind in restaurant inspections and is not conducting those examinations in the timely manner required by state law, and now the department is asking the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for help getting back on track.
Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said this week that a number of factors had led to the increased difficulty of keeping up with the state mandated timetable for inspections and she said the county needed to add an inspector position and fill it. She said those inspections have become more complex and time consuming over the years.
“The process for inspecting a restaurant has now been extended and it takes longer and there are more restaurants opening,” Green told the Board of Commissioners in a budget workshop.
She said the problem extended beyond restaurants.
“In this community, we have 3,172 institutions that should be inspected,” Green said. “That’s restaurants, nursing homes and cafeterias. We’re only inspecting about 66 percent of those.”
According to Green, current county health staff is doing all it can to keep up but it’s simply not enough.
“We have worked hard to keep our positions filled and we are keeping them filled now,” she said. “We have worked along with the manager on the salaries, and all that is working well.”
Green said that adding even just one inspector would help the department out a great deal. The Health Division of the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services currently has about a dozen inspectors and would no doubt like to add more than one position if health officials considered that a possibility.
Guilford County Assistant Health Director Ken Carter said several factors have led to the current inspection backlog. He said the same inspectors who check out restaurants also have to inspect swimming pools and nursing homes, and he added that the number of those facilities is growing.
“We haven’t kept up with demand,” Carter said.
The State of North Carolina requires that restaurants be inspected at least once a year and, in some cases, up to four times a year. Those requirements are based on a formula for risk. For instance, a restaurant that’s failed or done poorly on previous inspections must get checked more often. Carter said current health staff can’t keep up with state requirements.
“They want you to do 100 percent,” Carter said of the state.
He said one thing that makes the job harder is that, in 2012, North Carolina adopted more stringent federal inspection standards in place of the previous state guidelines. He said that came about largely because the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte and that led state legislators to adopt the federal inspection standards that were more stringent.
Carter said Guilford County inspectors aren’t meeting state mandates but, he pointed out, that while the county is not in compliance, it’s doing better than many others.
“We’re doing pretty good compared to other counties,” Carter said.
While the state doesn’t throw county health officials in jail when the inspection law isn’t adhered to, Guilford County does get hit with a decrease in state funding. Every permitted restaurant or food stand in the state pays an inspection fee and the state’s distribution of that money is determined by a formula that’s based on the number of permitted facilities in each county and the percentage of required inspections that are actually conducted in that county. Guilford County got $87,316 in a recent payout from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Forsyth County, which is at a 39 percent inspection rate, Carter said, got $27,000. Wake County, which is at 62 percent, got $123,000.
According to a report from the state, in fiscal 2015-2016 the lowest percentage of inspections conducted was Yancey County at 20 percent. That county, which is just northeast of Asheville, got $1,300 in state inspection funds. According to that same report, 45 North Carolina counties conducted 100 percent of their required inspections in 2015-2016.
Green said this lack of adequate inspection staff in Guilford County has been a lingering problem.
“This is a topic that seems to not go away,” she said.
According to Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford, adding and filling a new health inspector position would cost about $60,000 a year when benefits are included.
The county commissioners are now deciding if they want to spend the 60 grand to get those inspections more in line with state law.
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who ran the chain of Libby Hill Seafood restaurants before going into the seafood supply business, said his establishments used to get quarterly inspections every year. He said there had been a big increase in the number of restaurants over the years.
“We used to have one restaurant for every 20,000 people,” Conrad said. “Now we’ve got one restaurant for every 200. We haven’t kept up with that.”
In North Carolina, restaurants are ranked on a scale of A to C. Any restaurant with a score of less than 70 gets shut down until the matters are resolved.