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    Budget threatens inspections

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 19, 2002

    It hasn't been so long since Jerry Provost made his living checking out hotel fire alarms and restaurant cleanliness.

    That's why the St. Petersburg retiree was so concerned when he learned that Gov. Jeb Bush had proposed reducing the state hotel and restaurant inspection staff by a third.

    "The other inspectors who are left are going to have a tough row to hoe," said Provost, 64, who left the state inspection agency about a year ago.

    In a state where tourism is the top industry, Bush has proposed a budget that would decrease the staff of the hotel and restaurant inspection program from 312 to 206.

    The reason, said a spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, is that the program costs more than it raises in fees.

    "That is all the current budget will support," spokeswoman Lonnie Parizek said of the staffing recommendation. "But we have been working with the industry for a better solution."

    Parizek said industry representatives have been conferring with legislators and have proposed license fee increases that would generate enough money to keep the staff at current levels.

    Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant Association, said her organization, which has 10,000 members, favors the fee increases. The proposal would increase the basic restaurant license by $45, making it $195 a year.

    Those in the industry support the increases because they believe fees are going to increase one way or another, and they want to have a hand in crafting how those increases will come about, Dover said.

    Licensing fees have remained unchanged for a decade, she said. In the meantime, the inspection program has added personnel to respond to increasing numbers of businesses and periodic foodborne illness outbreaks.

    "They gave them all these inspectors but they didn't increase fees," Dover said.

    She said the program has run a deficit for the past seven or eight years. But a proposal that would have had the state charging restaurants $150 for every callback -- a return trip to make sure previously noted violations had been corrected -- was a bad idea, Dover said.

    That would encourage inspectors to find violations and make repeated return trips to establishments, she said.

    "When it's a way to erase a deficit, that's not the way to go about it," she said.

    Instead, representatives from the hotel and restaurant industry worked with state Rep. Allen Trovillion, R-Winter Park, to craft a bill that would raise $3.5-million to $4-million, which would get the program out of debt and eliminate the need for staff reductions.

    The bill, which has yet to be introduced in the Senate, has support from the governor's office, Trovillion said. He said he didn't expect he would have a problem in getting the bill passed.

    Along with the increase in restaurant licensing fees, the annual fees for hotels, motels and short-term apartment rentals would also go up. They now pay anywhere from $95 to $125, depending on the size of the establishment. The proposal would increase hotel and motel fees by $45 and apartments by $40, Trovillion said.

    The standard, Trovillion said, would remain at three restaurant inspections a year. A previous proposal to address the problem would have had inspectors visiting restaurants only once a year.

    "We will still have the same number of inspections each year," Trovillion said. "What we're trying to do is solve the problem without increasing taxes."

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