I-Team: Food businesses facing fee hike

LAS VEGAS - Someone is about to take a big bite out of food-related businesses in southern Nevada.

The health district wants to increase the fees it charges for inspections of all businesses which handles food, from high-end restaurants to quickie-mart convenience stores.

For some businesses, the costs could jump more than 300 percent, and the district wants the new fees to start next month.

This should concern not only those who own a food related business, but also everyone who works for one, and anyone who eats, because the costs will be passed along to all of us.

The proposal to impose a big fee hike sort of appeared out of nowhere on a health district agenda in February, as if no one would notice. The resort industry and restaurant association certainly noticed. They commissioned their own study of what the impact would be and the I-Team obtained a copy of what was sent to the district.

The parking spot for Chief Health Officer Joseph Iser was once again empty Wednesday morning, which -- as the I-Team has learned -- is not unusual, but even if he had showed up to work, we were told, Iser wasn't going to answer our questions.

But someone will have to. Elected officials on the health board have just received a polite but blistering letter from the powerful Nevada Resort Association whose president, former Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine, is a familiar face at health board meetings. The resort association, and its counterpart the restaurant association, were floored back in February when this item appeared on a meeting agenda announcing an innocuous sounding "revision" to the fee schedule. There had been no hearings, no conversations with the affected industries. Nothing.

The board ordered Iser to get public input about his proposed fee hike, so a pair of meetings were staged in early may for public comment  in her letter, Virginia Valentine characterized that as "a limited way to meet the public notice requirement", not a way to do business. 

Read: Health district fee schedule

It's pretty clear why the food industry would be worried. A policy analysis commissioned by the resorts shows a dramatic hike in costs for all food-related businesses, large and small, ranging from a mere 21 percent increase to a walloping of more than 300 percent, depending on the risk category. 

Example, a licensee in category 3 currently pays $280 for an inspection. That would jump to more than $1,000. In category 4, today's cost of $360 would skyrocket to more than $1,300. Since many kitchens hold more than one license, it could have a huge impact.

The analysis notes that the health district wants to impose a "one size fits all," classifying its risk assessment more on the square footage of a facility rather than a licensees compliance history or previous violations. But the analysis saved its hardest hits for the health district's math.

Dr. Iser and his staff don't make much of a case for needing extra money.  As it is, the fees paid by licensees not only cover the full cost of the inspection program, but produce a surplus of three-quarters of a million dollars per year.

The district used creative accounting to cloud the issue, factoring in an extra $3 million a year in unspecified overhead costs. The Resort Association argues that such overhead should be more than covered by the nearly $20 million per year the district obtains in property tax revenue. The health district has an annual fund balance of 35 percent, meaning it has piles of money unspent at the end of the year, far more than most public agencies.


Getting straight answers to what's really going on has proved hard for licensees, who told us no one at the health district seems to know how to explain the fee hikes or why they are needed, as if they didn't really consider the possible blowback.

As for the two chief proponents of the fee hikes, Dr, Joe Iser and his Environmental Health Chief Jackie Reszetar, employees say they're simply not available all that often.

"Both of them actually are not around a lot. People have wondered if they are even in the building or at the office 40 hours a week. You know this is government. This is taxpayer money, so somebody saying 'my phone is on 24 hours' is not being at work," said one whistleblower who talked withe I-Team.

The I-Team reached out to the health district for comment, but they declined. Dr. Joe Iser did show up for work because he spoke to 8 News NOW about West Nile virus. He doesn't speak to the I-Team

Virginia Valentine is traveling today but sent the following statement, "We are hopeful the information we provided will give the SNHD a starting point for a transparent and inclusive process to evaluate the need for a fee increase and the implementation if one is needed."

The fee hike was originally slated to go into effect July 1. 


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