Some restaurateurs say they’ve had to wait months for local health officers to perform routine inspections, and in some cases it’s causing their businesses to incur financial penalties.

Under Alabama law, facilities that prepare and serve food on-site can’t be issued a county/state business license unless they’ve passed a routine health inspection. Locally, those inspections are performed by the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD).

Throughout the county, MCHD is tasked with inspecting not only restaurants but also lodging services, tattoo shops, day care centers and several other kinds of businesses. According to its most recent data, MCHD performed 13,679 inspections at more than 3,000 locations in 2017.

The Mobile County Health Department performs thousands of inspections at various businesses every year. (MCHD)

Those numbers have increased over the past year, but according to Stephanie Woods-Crawford, director of environmental health and preparedness for MCHD, retirements, resignations and recent changes to state health codes have “drastically slowed things down” for local inspectors.

“We have replaced some of the positions and are looking to fill the other positions,” Crawford said. “Keep in mind  it takes a minimum of six months to a year, and in some cases longer, for a new inspector to be trained and on their own conducting inspections.”

While there used to be 15 to 18 full-time inspectors working for MCHD, there are currently just 12, and of those, four have been on the job less than a year. Two part-time inspectors work on an as-needed basis, but Crawford said they typically work “less than 20 hours per week, if that.”

Over the last few years, the situation has created a backlog of inspections. MCHD couldn’t say exactly how many businesses might be awaiting inspection, but it seems to be causing problems for some restaurants when applying for or renewing their business licenses.

A business license can’t be granted until an initial MCHD inspection has been passed, and they aren’t supposed to be renewed without subsequent inspections state law requires MCHD to perform anywhere from one to four times a year, depending on the type of business.

However, some restaurants say they’re having to wait months for what are supposed to be routine inspections due to the staffing shortages at MCHD and the growing volume of restaurants that need inspecting. It’s an issue MCHD says it’s actively working to address.

“We are constantly working toward getting caught up on inspections while also carrying out the other requirements of our daily duties,” MCHD Manager of Inspection Services Brad Philips said. “The backlog varies depending on what area of the county and other various issues. Some sections are caught up, while others are lagging. Areas without currently assigned inspectors are being covered by other inspectors in addition to [those inspectors’] own areas.”

Philips did note that when there are outstanding issues, MCHD staff must perform re-inspections — sometimes within 30 days but in severe cases within 48 hours. He also said responding to complaints or reports of foodborne illnesses takes priority over routine inspections.

Another MCHD official said the department has been “working diligently” to fill the needed positions, but the process has been proceeding slowly in part because all of its hiring must be handled through the local merit system and the Mobile County Personnel Board.

In the past, Mobile County Health Officer Bernard Eichold has supported previous legislative efforts to allow agencies in the Mobile County Merit System to handle their own recruitment and hiring practices because of how long it takes MCHD to process new hires through the personnel board.

In the meantime, some restaurant owners in Mobile are complaining about the impacts of the delays to perform requested inspections or to approve new restaurants or renovations.

Some say they’ve had to delay projected openings of new restaurants waiting for MCHD to approve plans, while others say they’ve been fined for not having an up-to-date health permit when trying to renew their county/state business licenses each year.

Several business owners have discussed the issue with Lagniappe off the record, though none were willing to be identified in print. However, it’s not an unheard-of situation, according to Mike Stuardi, who oversees revenue enforcement at the Mobile County License Commission.

“It’s not extremely common, but it is definitely a complaint we get,” Stuardi said.

Stuardi’s department oversees the issuance and renewal of county/state business licenses, which certain types of businesses must obtain in addition to their municipal business license. Both types of licenses must be renewed annually, and renewal requires annual inspection by the MCHD.

Philips said the MCHD can give “a verbal OK” so businesses awaiting inspection can continue operating, but they can still face fines from the city and county if they’re delinquent in renewing their licenses. The cost of a business license varies based on the size and location of the business, but the fine for a delinquent renewal in most cases is 15 percent of the license fee plus interest.

It’s not a cost that’s going to make or break most businesses, but it has become a frustration for owners that can’t get their license renewed only because they’re waiting on an MCHD inspection — especially if the wait drags on and the interest on those fines continues to compound.

For the most part, the renewal of city business licenses hasn’t been as much of an issue as those handled by the county. Stuardi explained that most city licenses expire based on the calendar year, while MCHD permits and the county licenses expire with the fiscal year.

“In years past, we were able to get [MCHD] to start its inspection cycle early because it had become such a problem when cutbacks began [around the 2008 recession],” Stuardi said. “But the volume out there was such that, even starting in August, they still couldn’t get all of the inspections done by the time some of ours were requiring the renewal of their license.”

Deputy License Commissioner Adam Bourne said cities also have more flexibility because their businesses’ licenses are governed by local ordinances, while the regulations the county enforces are set out in state law. A spokesperson said the city tries to “do whatever [it] can to work with businesses” in these situations, but in many ways county officials seem to have their hands tied.

“When a business is delinquent or overdue renewing their business license, we don’t have the discretion under the law to waive that penalty for any reason, even if a business were to tell us is that it’s because of a delay with another agency,” Bourne said. “I’m certainly sympathetic to whatever issue a business may have, but we just don’t have that authority under state law.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bernard Eichold as the director of the Mobile County Health Department. While Eichold does lead MCHD, his official title is “Mobile County Health Officer.”