The state public health department on Jan. 1 took over the job of inspecting 97 local restaurants and other food-service operations after determining that Pitkin County’s two-decade inspection program failed to meet the standards of a performance-improvement plan initiated in July, county and state officials confirmed Thursday.
The state’s action affects licensed restaurants and food operations in Snowmass Village, the sections of Basalt located within Pitkin County, Redstone, unincorporated areas of the county and the Aspen Business Center. The county was notified of the decision in mid-December, according to Kurt Dahl, county environmental health manager.
The city of Aspen’s restaurant and food-safety inspection program is unaffected by the situation, said environmental health director C.J. Oliver. However, some Aspen restaurants inadvertently were sent notices from the state public health department about the change in inspections in the county, creating some confusion among restaurant managers and owners over the last few days.
Dahl characterized the issue as a “contract dispute” with the state and pointed out that it had nothing to do with actual food-safety problems that involved or could have involved illness.
Through an annual contract, the state provides money to the county — about $41,000 — to help with the cost of restaurant inspections and educational outreach. Based on the amount of time county inspectors were spending with local eateries, state public health officials felt they weren’t getting adequate return for the money, Dahl said.
The county had one full-time inspector, a back-up inspector and a third person who was called on when needed, Dahl said, adding that he believed the county was living up to the standards of the performance-improvement plan, or PIP.
He said he was surprised by the state’s decision last month because he had been told that the county’s program was on the right track.
“I’m scratching my head a little bit,” Dahl said. “If there were additional items [beyond the criteria in the plan], I think we were more than willing and open to talk about how to make any additional improvements to the program.
“This is important to us,” he continued. “This is our community. So that’s our question, if we were doing the things that we had been asked to do, why wouldn’t we continue the relationship and continue to build on creating a better program. Why weren’t we given that opportunity? I don’t know that I have an answer.”
Another concern with the county’s program, aside from the amount of time spent with the restaurants on inspection and outreach, was the “level of engagement” with state public health officials who oversee restaurant inspections and food safety, Dahl said.
“Those were the two major components of our PIP,” he said. “When they informed us that they were not going to renew the contract at the end of the year, subsequently we asked them for some additional information. They did provide [County Manager] Jon Peacock a letter and outlined some concerns around interaction between my department and their department, but different from what was in the PIP.”
Though there is no formal appeal process, county officials plan to discuss the matter further and may attempt to resuscitate the program at the end of the year, Dahl said.
In addition to licensed restaurants, the county also handled inspections for the Aspen School District, Basalt High School and Basalt Middle School cafeterias, as well as licensed caterers and food-service operations at convenience stores, grocery stores and special events within the county, such as the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience and the Winter X Games.
Jeff Lawrence, director of the state division of environmental health and sustainability, said measuring the quality of a local government’s restaurant inspection program can be a difficult task.
“We have a longstanding and a positive relationship with Pitkin County,” Lawrence said. “There are a lot of different programs and services that public health departments provide. In many instances there were some resource constraints. It’s tough when you have more work than the bodies provided can perform.”
It seemed that Pitkin County’s food program, at times, “suffered under some of the qualitative metrics,” Lawrence said. “It’s understandable when one person is trying to do the work of more than one.”
The state will “take this off the county’s plate” for at least a year, he said. Later in the year, state public health officials will meet with the county to see if it has the resources “to allocate the necessary time toward the type of program that we would like to see.”
Beyond inspections and pointing out to restaurants what’s not being handled properly, educational outreach is an important component of food-safety programs, Lawrence said. The state has adopted some new regulations and is in the process of notifying all restaurants and food-service operations about them.
Meetings will be held at the Aspen Police Department on Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to noon and also from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., to explain the new food-code regulations and to answer questions about the state’s new role in overseeing inspections in the county outside of Aspen. A meeting also will be conducted on Wednesday at the Basalt Regional Library from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Troy Huffman, retail food team coordinator for the state public health department, will be on hand to address concerns about the new rules and the takeover of the county’s inspection program.
Through contracts with the state, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County have had separate restaurant inspection programs since 1999, according to the state. Previously, the two local governments combined forces in a joint program.