LOS ANGELES, Calif.–The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called for public health officials to speed up permit processing and weed out bad behavior by health inspectors before instituting fee hikes.

Department of Public Health Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding had sought the board’s approval for a July 1 change in fees related to health code inspections for restaurants and the enforcement of other state and local regulations on food safety, housing, drinking water, water pollution, solid
waste and pest control.

Fielding’s proposal would increase some fees, decrease others and create new fees to bring revenues in line with the cost of inspections and services.

The department’s regulatory group collects about $69 million annually and hasn’t raised rates since the 2007-08 fiscal year.

The changes were intended to increase the group’s annual revenues to $82.4 million per year, which Fielding said was necessary to cover earlier salary increases and higher operating costs.

However, county supervisors were unwilling to approve the increases, saying the department first needed to communicate with businesses that would be effected.

The rate plan “is a very complex, 51-page amendment to our county code affecting over 174,000 entities, including restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, apartment buildings, farmers’ markets, private school cafeterias and solid waste disposal sites, most of whom probably don’t know a thing about it,” said Supervisor Don Knabe.

Knabe recommended that the department spend more time previewing the changes–which include “double-digit percentage hikes’–with those it would impact.

Knabe said he was also reluctant to increase fees to businesses already frustrated with the slow pace of approvals in California relative to other states, such as Texas, citing Carl’s Jr. fast-food restaurants as an example.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky went a step further, calling on the department to address slow response times, delays, inconsistent enforcement and rude behavior by health inspectors before increasing rates. He said his office is consistently dealing with such complaints.

“The problem with people at the bottom of the food chain with the ability to grant permits is that some of them get a little carried away,” Yaroslavsky said, calling such inspectors “little Napoleons.”

Yaroslavsky called the rate hike an opportunity to give the public service in line with what they’re paying.

Fielding warned that without the increase, proposed to take effect July 1, the regulatory group would have to freeze staffing and cut back services, slowing down inspections of high-risk food facilities and illegal food vendors as well as plan check approvals for swimming pools, septic systems, wells and waste processing facilities.

Fielding was asked to return to the board in 60 days with recommendations on improving service and a progress report on communicating the new rate structure to businesses.

By Elizabeth Marcellino | City News Service