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License fees for restaurant inspections on the rise

For the third straight year, license fees are going up for local lodging and dining establishments.

Douglas County commissioners approved last month the 2009 environmental health fee schedule, a roughly 10 percent increase over 2008.

Paid by area restaurants and hotels in exchange for food and beverage- or lodging-service licenses, the fees fund Douglas and Pope counties' environmental health department, which enforces Minnesota health code standards by performing inspections of local hospitality establishments.

Since 2006, license fees on average have jumped roughly 60 percent.

Sandy Tubbs, Douglas County's public health director, said the 2009 increase, which should raise another $15,000 in revenue next year, is needed to help cover rising departmental costs.

The dual county health inspection unit hired a second full-time sanitarian this year, Tubbs said, in order to fulfill the state's inspection requirements for local area restaurants, a task that has grown in size right along with the community in recent years.

"[The fee bump] supports staffing, it supports supplies, it supports meeting inspection fees," she said. "We have always worked to have this program be self-sustaining and it always has been."

The environmental health unit earns most of its revenue from collecting license fees.

Tubbs said the department expects to bring in roughly $181,000 from licenses and event permits, with an expected total budget of $236,000.

In 2007, health inspectors performed 441 examinations of 258 establishments in Douglas County and Pope County (some were inspected for each of their different licenses).

During that time, county sanitarians discovered 1,438 health-code violations - most food-related - 469 of which were critical infractions.

"Critical, meaning people are likely to get sick," Tubbs said.

Examples of common critical violations, she said, include storing foods at improper temperatures, poor personal hygiene of people preparing food or cross contamination, where raw foods are kept too close to ready-to-eat foods, creating the potential for spreading bacteria.

"If you have chickens thawing above a rack filled with fruits and vegetables," Tubbs said, "[the chickens] could be dripping onto those fruits and vegetables down below."

Few have seen more violations than inspector Todd Appel, a registered sanitarian with the public health department for more than a decade.

"If I had to rank them from most to least common I would have to say - one, lack of food safety knowledge; two, poor personal hygiene; three, cold holding violations; four, cross contamination; five, hot holding temperatures," Appel said in an e-mail statement to the newspaper.

Doolittle's Woodfire Grill was one of the many area restaurants Appel inspected last year.

General Manager Ken Kopp said the eatery received a clean bill of health, and it has never had a critical violation.

"I think [the health inspectors] do a quality inspection," Kopp said. "We score well, but they don't just walk in and walk out, they actually make sure we're keeping the public healthy."