Pitco to keep food safety inspections | AspenTimes.com

Pitco to keep food safety inspections

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County officials said Wednesday they are doing everything possible to save the food safety inspection program from the budgetary chopping block.

The county commissioners agreed Tuesday to take the food safety inspection program off the list of immediate cutbacks on the condition it can pay for itself, said county spokeswoman Nan Sundeen.

Employees at the Environmental Health Department are working with Miles Stotts, director of the county’s Natural Resources division, to keep the inspections going. Stotts said he hopes to use fee increases and service reductions to make the food services program pay for itself.

“Just watch, we’ll make it work,” he said.

The environmental health department’s primary responsibilities are food safety at restaurants and septic system approvals and inspections. It was one of three departments to lose an employee to the layoffs announced last week. At the time, county management said the remaining employees would focus their attention on septic system oversight.

Last week’s layoffs were followed this week with nearly $1 million in cutbacks to county operations. The county is closing its downvalley office, eliminating grants to many nonprofits, delaying building maintenance programs and cutting employee benefits to make up for the shortfall.

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The commissioners plan to ask voters for a property tax increase to cover what is expected to be a $2.2 million budget shortfall in each of the next five years. If voters decline, more significant cuts will be made.

The immediate changes to the restaurant inspection program could include cutting the number of visits in half, from twice to once annually, and increasing the licensing fee, according to Brian Pettet, director of the public works department.

Pettet said the county will also rework agreements with Snowmass Village and Basalt. Currently, county employees inspect restaurants in both jurisdictions. Snowmass pays the county for the service, although Pettet said their contribution does not cover the county’s costs. Basalt pays nothing for the inspections.

“That’s going to change,” he said. “We are treating this as if we are required to have a zero-based budget for food inspections, so when we go back to the county commissioners with our plan, it has no impact on the general fund.”

Pettet said a training program offered to new restaurant owners – so they are up to code when they go into operation – may be scrapped.

“The program can be self-sufficient if we eliminate some of our services,” he said.

“We feel it’s important for the consumers of Pitkin County to be protected from food-borne illnesses,” he added. “And the chances of that happening will go up if we don’t make these inspections.”

Fees for a number of county programs – including the community development department, which processes land-use applications, the building department, the county engineer, the wildlife biologist and the landfill – are also under review. And the costs of permits for driving overweight vehicles on county roads, utility installations that require cuts through the road surfaces and other special needs are likely to rise as well.

“We want to make sure all the costs associated with the employee who is processing a permit – their salary, benefits, administrative support – are covered,” Pettet said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com.]

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