BY STEVE GRAFF
Journal Staff

Businesses requiring health inspections could be paying nearly three times more in annual sanitary permit fees if a new proposal from the Department of Public Health and Social Services moves forward.

DPHSS’ Division of Environmental Health is proposing a 175% increase in permit fees over five years and stiffer penalties for restaurants, hotels and other “health-regulated establishments,” or HREs, to help pay for the additional 37 health inspectors it needs to conduct the more than 12,000 inspections the law mandates.

For at least the last five years, DEH has fallen woefully short of that mandate, said DEH chief M. Thomas Nadeau.

He told a crowd on Nov 14. at the quarterly membership meeting of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association at the Pacific Star Resort and Spa that only 10% of the inspections for the 3,246 businesses that require permits were conducted in fiscal 2018.

“This is the reality that we are facing with the limited number of staff we have,” Nadeau said.

A photograph of a kitchen sink in an unknown eating establishment shared in a Division of Environmental Health presentation on Nov 14.

Photo courtesy of DPHSS

The 2019 inspection numbers are likely even lower, he said, because so much of DEH’s resources and manpower have gone to handling the dengue outbreak.

DEH’s primary function is to conduct sanitation inspections and investigations of HREs — which include restaurants, hotels, swimming pools and childcare facilities.

The division currently employs nine trained health inspectors but only two to three actively conduct inspections, Nadeau said. The others manage or work on other programs.

To help fund the hiring of new staff, DEH is suggesting hikes in both sanitary permit fees and penalties.

Permanent HREs currently pay $290 plus $5 per employee after 10 employees a year for a sanitary permit. Under the new proposal, that fee would increase to $368 in year one, with an increase of $100 every year after that up to five years.

By the fifth year, businesses would be paying $768 plus $5 per employee after 10 employees.

To be in accordance with 10 GCA §21104, DEH must conduct four inspections of HREs every year. With more than 3,200 permanent and temporary HREs on Guam, health inspectors should be conducting more than 12,000 inspections every year.

 “We prioritize our resources by focusing on high-risk populations, the young, the elderly, the frail,” Nadeau said. “And, also we focus on establishments that have been linked to disease outbreaks or repeated, blatant offenders.”

Not meeting the requirements can be tied to the lack of funding for the DEH — which receives the least amount of DPHSS funding, with an annual budget of $2.3 million in fiscal 2019, or about 3% of DPHSS’ total budget, according to Nadeau.

To generate more funds, DEH is also proposing a significant increase in the dollar amount for penalties.

Currently, a violation results in a $100 fine and suspension of the permit. Under the new proposal, that fine would jump to $300 to $500, based on the size of the HRE.

New fines are also being proposed for other violations, such as operating without a sanitary permit, refusing DPHSS to access the premises or examine records, and the importation of adulterated or misbranded consumer commodities. Those fines run as low as $250 and as high as $25,000.

Nadeau flashed photographs of recent violations up on the screen during his GHRA presentation. Dead roaches and rodent droppings were seen scattered on floors. Dirty and cracked walls, ceiling and sinks were featured in several photos, while others depicted large amounts of junk and other waste strewn about in what appeared to be a maintenance room.

“This is a big concern for us, because just like the dengue response, if there is an outbreak of foodborne illness, it requires all of our resources,” Nadeau said. “And God forbid if we had one now. We would be short on staff and we would have to sacrifice another program for our mosquito surveillance in order to respond to that.”

The economic burden to Guam on foodborne illnesses alone is $258 million a year, he said.

Nadeau said DEH is proposing the increase over a five-year period to give establishments time to prepare and allow for the recruitment and training of the additional inspectors.

The price hike is the latest of several measures increasing costs for businesses on Guam, including the business privilege tax and the minimum wage increase set to go into effect in March.

 “This is not set in stone. This is still a proposal,” Nadeau said. “We are open to suggestions and recommendations. In fact, you will be given the opportunity in a public, administrative hearing,” he said. That is set for Dec 3. at the DEH offices in Dededo.

After that, the proposal moves to the Office of the Attorney General for legal review and then onto to the governor’s office for transmittal to the legislature, which may have its own public hearing.  Either way, the legislature can either accept or reject the proposal, Nadeau told the Journal.

One idea appears to be off the table.

After his presentation, Mary P. Rhodes, president of GHRA, asked if DEH would consider giving better rates for HREs in good standing with the division.

“I see this is as a shared cost and shared responsibility among the community and industry,” Nadeau said. “…[W]hat we want to do is apply the increase fairly…so everyone accepts the same amount, regardless of their situation.”

One option Nadeau did entertain is less inspections for businesses.

“I don’t think four times a year is a bad requirement, but I don’t think all establishments need four times year,” he said. “If you maintain a certain status or certain compliance, you [could be] inspected less frequently…But that would require legislation.”

See Data Bank for more information on DEH’s permits and inspections. mbj

A history of deficiencies

The problem isn’t new. The lack of Division of Environmental Health inspections and staff shortage predates the last two fiscal years by more than a decade.

For example, within the last five years as of May 2018, the DEH did not inspect 44.5% of HREs, including:

  • 974 food facilities (44%)
  • 56 institutional facilities (46%)
  • 25 cosmetic establishments (38%)
  • 82 public swimming pools (76%)
  • 29 hotels (38%)
  • 30 laundries and dry cleaners (39%)
  • 2 tattoo shops (13%)

Records from fiscal 2009 showed that DEH conducted only:

  • 20% of the inspections for 1,446 food facilities
  • 23% of the inspections for 891 food manufacturers
  • Less than 1% inspections for 187 hotels
  • 9% of the inspections for 86 public swimming pools

Staff numbers averaged three full-time inspectors between fiscal years 2004 through 2009.

Source: DEH