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January 30, 2014
Health dept. ups inspection fees to cut reliance on county funds

The Tooele County Board of Health has approved increased fees for food service-related inspections and permits, a move health officials say will make the program less dependent on county funds.

The new fee schedule, which will increase most charges by about 20 percent, will impact local restaurants and food establishments, said Jeff Coombs, deputy director for the Tooele County Health Department.

Food establishments are required to maintain active permits to remain open, and the cost of those permits is put toward inspecting restaurants and food booths, as well as providing training for restaurant staff.

The entire program costs the health department about $69,000 a year, Coombs said. At the old rates, collected fees covered about 76 percent of that cost. The new rates should cover 90 percent, he said, leaving just $7,000 to be funded via county tax revenue.

“This is not something that the county can say, ‘we’re not doing this anymore, we can’t afford it,’” Coombs said. Consequently, the department had to find other ways to fund the program in spite of budget cuts.

At last Tuesday night’s board of health meeting where the increased fees were approved, Myron Bateman, Tooele County Health Department director, indicated that, in response to county budget cuts, the health department would likely have to dip into its reserve funds to avoid cutting essential services this year — a fund the health department is loath to use.

“The reason for the rainy day fund is for a real emergency,” Bateman said. “We try to do everything possible to avoid using our reserve money.”

At its current rate of spending, the department could continue to operate off of reserve funding for about three years before the reserve fund, which contains about $1 million, runs dry, he said.

For the time being, Bateman said the health department is in good financial shape. But if budget cuts continue, the department may have to cut services in the future.

The health board last raised its food service fees about seven years ago, when it discovered that its rates were much lower than those within other nearby counties, such as Summit, Utah and Weber counties, Bateman said. Those increases were implemented over the course of five years.

However, Bateman said the health department chose to raise its fees again after the Tooele County Commission requested that all county departments evaluate and revise their fee schedules. Although these are the only increases to be approved to date, Bateman said there were still other areas the health department plans to evaluate.

Even after the increases, the fee schedule is still comparable to or cheaper than the fees charged by neighboring counties, said Bateman.

The new fee schedule, which is slated to take effect on March 1, will increase the total annual cost of permitting by about $40 for an average local restaurant, $30 for a fast food establishment and $10 for convenience stores, Coombs said. The price of a food handlers permit will remain unchanged, but the charge for food manager registration will increase $10 to $20 to cover the cost of training.

Coombs said the health department planned to send out a letter to impacted establishments sometime next week.

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