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Proposed Budget Increase Prepares for Hiring of Additional Health Inspectors

The Allegheny County Health Department's effort to update its restaurant grading system is getting a boost from the 2015 budget presented this month to county council.  The $839.2 million budget drafted by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald includes an increase in funding for the department's food inspection effort.

Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health, says the Health Department will increase its number of full-time food inspectors from 20 to 22 if council approves the spending plan.

“With the proposed food grading system and other initiatives that we are proposing, we believe these inspectors are necessary in order for us to provide proper enforcement of the food code in Allegheny County,” Thompson said.

The Allegheny County Board of Health has approved the proposed grading system, and it is now awaiting ratification by the County Council, according to Thompson.

In terms of actual dollars, the Health Department’s budget won’t increase by much.

“A starting food inspector makes approximately $30,000,” Thompson said. “So in terms of that…including benefits, it’s roughly a $70- to $80,000 increase in the budget.”

The system assigns restaurants a letter grade of an A, B or C which the facility is to display for the public.  Similar systems are used around the country including New York City.

“It is a process by which the inspection reports are given a grade to make it transparent as to how well a facility performed on their last inspection,” Thompson said. “What it does is it subtracts points for high-risk violations that have a direct impact on causing food-borne illness.”

Thompson said the system would bring minimal change, but the existing regulations will be scored in reference to the violations that occur.  If restaurants receive lower than a “C”, or lower than 70 on the 100-point scale, immediate action will be taken.

As of now, there are about 9,100 licensed food facilities in Allegheny County.  Of these, about 2,000 facilities - such as schools and nursing homes - will not initially be included in the grading system, but they will be added eventually.

He said a pilot program showed the Health Department could technically switch without hiring new inspectors, but the additions will help ensure high standards.

“What this does is provide us an upgrade such that other provisions that we want to do as far as quality assurance of our inspections are maintained,” Thompson said.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.
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