The Minnesota Health and Agriculture departments plan Monday to strip St. Paul of its authority to inspect food retailers, restaurants and other businesses in the city, charging incompetence and an ongoing failure to meet state health standards.
The state’s actions point to serious concerns about whether inspections have regularly met state-prescribed standards in St. Paul, which has conducted its own food inspections since 1887. It wasn’t clear whether the state has taken similar action before, although no one could recall such a thing happening to St. Paul.
Food and restaurant inspections ultimately are the responsibility of the state, which typically delegates that authority to local jurisdictions.
But according to Health Department spokesman Michael Schommer, a state review of the city’s inspections program last year found “inadequate inspection frequency, inaccurate and incomplete inspection reports, and inadequate inspection staffing.”
The city responded Wednesday by filing for a temporary restraining order against the state departments in Ramsey County District Court, blaming inspection troubles on severe state aid cuts and insisting that recent hiring and resource upgrades make the city more likely to do a better job of inspections than the state.
“The city’s top priority is the safety and welfare of its residents and guests, and the city has met all the obligations of its agreements with both departments of health and agriculture,” Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement.
In November, the state and city made a conditional agreement that allowed St. Paul to continue inspections so long as it submitted its inspection reports to the state for review.
State officials said that the city complied only last month, and then only with reports from May and June.
The Health Department told city officials last month that it was canceling its conditional agreement to give St. Paul two years to bring its inspections up to state standards. City officials appealed that decision, but learned this week that their appeal had been rejected.
“Subsequent experience has shown that the [city’s] program has not improved sufficiently and so we have decided to cancel the delegation inspection agreement,” Schommer said.
Of 114 inspection reports that St. Paul filed in May and June, Schommer said that 70 percent contained errors such as the wrong code violation or omission of compliance deadlines. Nearly 40 percent listed compliance periods that were too long under state guidelines, and 17 percent failed to initiate the prescribed enforcement action.
Moreover, the state found that St. Paul had fewer than nine inspections in May per inspector. The November conditional agreement with the city had required each inspector to conduct at least 25 inspections per month, Schommer said.
The Agriculture Department is taking similar action targeted at St. Paul’s inspection of grocery stores, convenience stores and delis. An assessment by the department in January and February revealed serious problems in administration and field inspection: inadequate staffing, a staff competency rate below the 82 percent required and only 35 percent of high-risk facilities had been inspected once a year (all are supposed to be inspected).
In the conditional agreement, city officials acknowledged that they had not been meeting all inspection standards. But in his appeal to the Health Department, city safety and inspections director Ricardo Cervantes said that in the past few years “the city has been asked to do more with less [by the state], which predictably and unavoidably meant that some programs could not be fully funded.”
Since November, Cervantes pointed out, St. Paul has hired a new environmental health manager, appointed two new supervisors, added seven people to the inspections division, conducted nearly 2,000 hours of training and reduced its backlog of cases by nearly half.
It also paid $106,000 to the Health Department for consulting services from a state employee — who the city claims has been absent nearly 40 percent of the time.
The restructuring added $725,000 to this year’s inspections budget, the city said.
In making the case for a temporary restraining order, the city attorney’s office said that neither department had inspected the city’s program for more than a decade. To bring itself up to date, the city had agreed to work on improving its program over a two-year period and had made significant progress.
Now, the city argues in court documents, “Not only would a hostile takeover by [the state departments] risk public safety, it would inflict serious harm on the city that could not be remedied later.”
The city goes on to say that if the state adds more than 2,100 St. Paul establishments to its large caseload, it “would create food gaps, confuse licensees, and adds significant regulatory complexity — all without tangible benefit to public safety.”
Mayoral spokesman Joe Campbell said that St. Paul has nine inspectors for restaurants, lodging and pools, as well as four inspectors who focus on food dealers such as grocery stores.
“The city believes that our inspectors are best suited to perform inspections within the city of St. Paul,” Campbell said. “The larger the institution, the less service-oriented it is.”
In 2010, the Health Department called Minneapolis’ inspection program “unacceptable” and said the city’s inspection frequency was under par. As a result, the city planned last fall to hire more inspectors.