Tom Ferrick Jr., Inquirer Columnist
Into each life some mouse droppings must fall, but must they fall into your soup? I think not.
That’s why we have sanitation codes and public inspection of restaurants and other places that prepare food, such as your neighborhood Wawa and deli.
It’s not just because rodent droppings and roach legs are icky. It is to prevent the outbreak of food-borne diseases that – if you’ll excuse the expression – plagued previous generations: listeria, E. coli, salmonella, etc. People can die from that stuff.
But in Philadelphia, we are lackadaisical when it comes to inspections.
As my colleagues John Sullivan and Alletta Emeno reported Sunday, the FDA recommends food inspections three times a year. On average, Philadelphia does inspections once every 15.4 months.
In other cities, inspectors target repeat offenders. In Philadelphia, we do not. The inspectors just go from one restaurant to another, based on who is next on their list.
In other cities, they post certificates in restaurants noting whether the establishments passed the inspection. We do not.
In other cities, they post inspection results on the Web, so folks with questions can look up a particular establishment.
In Philadelphia, we didn’t do that until May 19 – and that was six years after this newspaper began asking for release of the data.
The Public Health Department, which oversees restaurant inspections, pleads poverty and chronic understaffing.
Currently, it has 20 inspectors (there are seven unfilled positions) to handle 13,000 establishments.
When questioned about the failings of a program, it is common – it is almost mandatory – for bureaucrats to sigh and say: “Gee, if only we had more people, we could do that right.”
In this case, it’s a legit defense.
Philadelphia’s regulatory agencies – Public Health, Licenses and Inspections, Law and Revenue, to name four – have taken huge hits in their budgets over the last 10 years, with double-digit declines in personnel.
Ditto the city’s service departments, such as Streets and Recreation. Adjusted for inflation, the budgets of those two departments have dropped 17 percent since 1996.
What about enforcement of the city’s various codes: health, building, fire, safety, electrical, etc?
“The most generous thing you can say about it is that it is uneven,” one former administration official told me.
Exacerbating the problem: City Council, which loves to pass ordinances levying fines for various activities, but never, ever adds money to the city budget to pay for inspectors to enforce these code changes.
An easy out
A kind of regulatory fatigue has set in. Violations are written, paper is shuffled, fines are collected, but it’s not all that hard to evade or delay enforcement.
What’s happened to the money that went to these service and enforcement agencies? It’s mostly gone to the two big growth sectors in the budget: public safety and employee benefits.
I note here that while Mayor Street recently agreed to hire 100 new police, the latest budget plan shows a drop in the number of employees at L&I.
Mayors have to make these kinds of decisions. If you had to choose between hiring a cop or a health inspector, which would you pick?
I suspect most folks would pick the police officer, unless, of course, they once got food poisoning from a corned beef sandwich at their local deli.
There’s not much glamour in announcing: “I’ve just hired 30 new building inspectors!” Better to build new sports stadiums (stadii?), cut ribbons, launch Safe Streets programs.
But you’ve got to watch the fundamentals of city government as well. Code enforcement sounds deadly dull until the day a building collapses or people are incinerated in a factory fire or there’s a mass outbreak of salmonella.
Then everyone looks up and asks: How could that happen?
Well, now you know.