Chesterton Tribune



Porter County overhauling food permit and fee system to raise more money

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The Porter County Commissioners are in the midst of some major restructuring of the fees assessed to those in the food service industry.

The Commissioners voted 3-0 last week on a first reading for the new fees that will be administered by the County Health Department.

The fees have not been updated in nearly a decade and a half, said County Health Board Attorney David Hollenbeck who approached the Commissioners about making the updates.

“I’m somewhat embarrassed to say we haven’t done this since 1999, and there have been some significant changes in different areas that are forcing us to proceed,” Hollenbeck said.

The new fee structure will simplify the older system, Hollenbeck said, by issuing permits and fees based on square footage instead of by restaurant or by grocery store where in some cases those distinctions were not always clear. It will also help the health department become financially self-sufficient in conducting inspections.

The same is being done in adjacent counties, Hollenbeck said.

The structure will divided into three categories -- businesses less than 3,000 sq. ft. who would be charged $200 for annual inspection; business between 3,000 and 10,000 sq. ft. who would be charged $350 per annual inspection; and businesses more than 10,000 who would be charged $500 per annual inspection.

Under the older system, full-service restaurants have been charged $220 for a permit while grocery stores have been charged $440.

Hollenbeck said the new ordinance recognizes all affiliated businesses as “retail food establishments” instead of defining a grocery store and a restaurant.

Under the County’s home rule authority, the Health Department can issue temporary permits on a daily basis for events like the county fair or a festival.

There will also be a partial food service establishment permit for seasonal restaurants such as The Port in Chesterton and a limited retail food establishment permit to inspect establishments that don’t have full service kitchens but sell prepackaged foods.

Since 1999, the food industry in Porter County has burgeoned from having 350 businesses to more than 750 presently, Hollenbeck said. It costs the County Health Department $125,000 annually to inspect the restaurants and businesses in 1999; today it costs about $185,000, he said.

“There is a shortfall there and our proposed ordinance will close that shortfall,” said Hollenbeck. “We were told by the Commissioners and the County Council this is the kind of program that should be self-sufficient, that it should generate enough revenue from the fees and pay for itself.”

Health Department Administrator Keith Letta said there are three full-time and one part-time inspector on staff currently, while in 1999 there were two full-time, meaning the work has doubled while the staffing hasn’t.

The fees collected in the past related to the number of employees a business has. Hollenbeck said that it has become increasing difficult to apply an accurate employee number as the industry continues to change and more establishments are hiring more part-time workers.

The health department has experienced some difficulty in collecting fees, Hollenbeck said, and one thing included in the new proposal is to “give it a little more meat” by delegating the health officer to formulate a delinquent payment system for establishments late on their payments.

Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, asked how the health board decided on the parameters of the square footage. Adams had co-owned Strongbow Inn Bakery and Restaurant, which is one of the businesses that have more than 10,000 sq. ft.

Inspectors Juanita Goepcheus and Sheila Paul said they discovered that most of the restaurants fit the 3,000 sq. ft. category while there are some that did fall into the 3,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. range. Only rarely did restaurants exceed 10,000 sq. ft. limit and those would be the ones with large banquet halls such as Strongbow’s.

Large grocery stores and supermarkets also fell into the latter category, said Goepcheus.

Hollenbeck said that grocery stores which had restaurants inside of them typically had to pay the health department for two permits, but the new ordinance will allow them to combine them into one, which is also reflected in the state’s regulations.

“We did find the need to simplify the whole thing because it was very complicated,” added Letta.

Hollenbeck said the Commissioners can also decide to make changes if they wish. A final reading of the ordinance will be given when the Commissioners meet on Oct. 15.

“Our goal is to bring this in compliance with the state’s regulations, simplify the process, and to realign ourselves as a self-sufficient, self-supporting program so tax dollars aren’t being used to subsidize the inspections,” Hollenbeck said.



Posted 10/9/2013





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