In a move sure to give some local restaurant owners indigestion, the Allegheny County Health Department is planning to start assessing fees when health inspectors must return to a site multiple times to ensure that food safety violations are fixed.
The department says that charging fees for follow-up visits, known as reinspections, is aimed at repeat offenders who monopolize department resources by continually failing to clean up serious health code violations.
"There are some places where we go back many times to gain compliance," said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the department. "We need to change our fee model to make it more fair to all of the restaurants, especially the ones that don't require reinspections."
Mr. Thompson said charging for reinspections is not unusual. Reinspection fees are assessed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which handles restaurant inspections in jurisdictions statewide that do not have their own inspection programs.
The state does not charge for a regular inspection or up to one follow-up visit. But it costs $150 for a second reinspection and $300 each if any subsequent reinspections are needed.
For now, Allegheny County plans to adopt the same fee structure as the state, Mr. Thompson said.
The proposal would need approval from the Allegheny County Board of Health and county council.
"I think some fee is appropriate," said Sean Casey, president of the local chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association and owner of the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville.
But Mr. Casey said he thought the proposed fees were too high. And he was concerned that such a program could be abused by county officials seeking to generate funds, especially in the face of budget cuts.
"It's like when the police department is sent out to get a bunch of speeding tickets to raise money for the coffers," he said.
The plan to impose reinspection fees was contained in a broader proposal released for public comment last week that would see A-B-C cleanliness grades posted on restaurant doors.
The department plans to ask the board of health in September to send the grading plan to county council for consideration, with rollout of the program within 30 days of receiving council's approval.
It wasn't clear when reinspection fees might be implemented, but it likely would be at same time that any grading plan was launched.
John Graf, CEO of the Priory Hospitality Group on the North Side, who has been a vocal opponent of posting grades on restaurant doors, said he generally supported the idea of reinspection fees to defray costs and discourage sloppy practices.
"I don't really have a problem with that," he said. Still, he said he would have preferred that restaurants were allowed two follow-up visits before fees kicked in.
Sometimes, inspectors are forced to return to the same restaurant over and over until serious problems are corrected. For restaurants that repeatedly fail to fix major problems, reinspection fees could add up.
For example, Sushi Boat Asian Kitchen in Oakland -- which was hit with a consumer alert in February for numerous critical violations including rat droppings and holding foods at unsafe temperatures -- would have been charged $450 if reinspection fees were in place.
India Garden in Oakland -- which drew two consumer alerts and was ordered to close for a week last year for a recurring roach problem and numerous other serious violations -- would have rung up $1,050 in reinspection fees.
And Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe at Ross Park Mall -- which piled up six follow-up visits last year related to cold-holding problems -- would have been slapped with some $1,350 in reinspection fees.
To access the county's restaurant grading proposal, visit www.achd.net.