Restaurant inspectors in South Mississippi are working out of their homes and cars after major cuts to the budget of the Mississippi Department of Health closed offices and cut staff.
The cuts mean restaurants will be inspected less often, said Melissa Parker, deputy director of the agency's Office of Environmental Health.
Previously, restaurants were assigned a risk level from 1 to 4 and that was how many times a year they were inspected, she said.
Restaurants with a level of 1 and 2 have a lower risk. "We're going to try to visit them once a year," she said. If they are kept in compliance and get an A rating every time, "they'll see us less often," she said.
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Those restaurants with a higher risk, "we'll plan on visiting them twice a year," she said, or more often if issues are identified each time.
"I think it's going to be a more effective way to run the inspection program," she said.
Restaurants that get a C due to health or safety issues still will be reinspected quickly, she said, usually within 24 to 48 hours.
Robert Travnicek, who served for several years as district director of the Health Department in South Mississippi, said the agency's entire structure has changed since he was in charge. "You have to cut smartly," he said. While the department has many duties, he said, "Food inspection, if I was there, is the last thing I'd cut."
Restaurant owners should have a healthy respect for the inspectors, Travnicek said, and he doesn't believe one inspection a year is enough.
"Who knows what could happen in a year?" he asks. "You are going to have food outbreaks."
With a more than 10 percent budget reduction this year, "we had to cut a total of 20 positions statewide in environmental," said Parker. This includes the food inspection program at restaurants, schools and hospital. Two positions were cut on the Coast and three Coastal inspectors were moved to wastewater-realted duties.
Many of the county offices were closed and the state was divided into three sections. The South has 19 food inspectors for 24 counties.
"We have home-based inspectors now," Parker said. "They are actually working off of iPads to do their inspections."
With so many new restaurants under construction and about to open in South Mississippi, local restaurant owners are concerned there may be a delay in the inspection and permitting process.
It shouldn't take longer to get an inspection, Parker said, but there could be delays in getting a restaurant open.
Previously, inspectors would go out several times to a new facility and help the owner work through the process, she said. "And while that's great, we're just not funded to do that because of the budget cuts."
Instead of staff in the central office reviewing plans for a new restaurant, the workload is being shared by staff in each area who now will focus on plan review, she said. It will be up to the restaurant owner to make sure the plans and applications are complete when they are emailed to the Health Department, she said.
The Health Department also closed medical clinics in Biloxi and Ocean Springs this year.
Parker said her department will rely on the staff to provide feedback on what they think is going to work and what won't and is asking restaurant owners to rate the inspectors.
"We want to make sure they're getting the best customer service from us," she said. "We want restaurants and food facilities to come to us and get the technical assistance they need to succeed."