Food inspection ratings hang prominently in the windows of two downtown restaurants. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Updated with statement from GLI.

The head of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, the deputy director of the Department of Public Health and Wellness and a few council members disagreed last week over the question: Who should cover a gap in funding for the health department’s food safety programs — restaurants or taxpayers?

The cost of inspection work, as well as other food safety-related services provided by the health department, is $1.2 million. In fiscal year 2017, the state covered $1 million, but this fiscal year, it will only send about $600,000 to the local health department to cover expenses, Matt Rhodes, the health department’s deputy director, told members of the Louisville Metro Council’s budget committee last week.

In an effort to cover the $600,000 budget gap, Insider Louisville previously reported, Councilwoman Marianne Butler, D-15, and Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, introduced an ordinance that would create a local food permit and charge food-related businesses from $25 to $80 annually in new permit fees, with the majority paying $80. The new fee, if approved, is expected to bring in $300,000 to help cover the shortfall.

Since the initial ordinance was introduced, the wording has changed slightly. Now, food service facilities wouldn’t have to post the local food permit but simply make it available upon request, and the health department board can increase the annual fee by a maximum of $5 within any four-year period (only if the fee revenue is not sufficient to cover the administrative cost of enforcing the food code). A prior version would have allowed the fee to increase $5, or 5 percent a year, without any cap.

“No one, I think, wants to make this a revenue generator for the community. We just want to cover expenses,” Hollander said, adding that he doesn’t believe taxpayers should have to cover the full amount of the deficit.

Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, questioned whether it would be more appropriate for tax dollars to cover the gap as taxpayers eat at restaurants and benefit from food safety standards. She also noted that restaurants bring revenue into the city through taxes charged to visitors who were drawn to Louisville because of its culinary scene.

Despite the changes, the Kentucky Restaurant Association still opposes the proposed ordinance, which passed out of the budget committee with an 8-to-1 vote. Leet voted against it.

Stacy Roof, head of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, told members of the budget committee that the new ordinance would do “nothing to enhance food safety” in the city and food service operators would get nothing “other than a piece of paper that will go into a file.”

Matt Rhodes | Courtesy of MetroTV

“It is truly only for the dollars it will raise, and we take issue with that,” Roof said, noting that she is not sure if the city has the legal authority to institute the new permit and fee.

In an email to Insider later, Roof said she was not sure if the association’s board would seek legal action should Metro Council approve the ordinance. The board does not meet again until November.

Chamber of commerce Greater Louisville Inc. also released this statement from COO Sarah Davasher-Wisdom in opposition to the ordinance.

“While GLI opposes the proposed Metro Council ordinance seeking to establish new local fees on food service establishments in Jefferson County, we worked with Council members Butler and Hollander to make modifications that will lessen some of its negative impacts on Louisville businesses,” the statement reads.

When questioned by the council, Rhodes argued that the Department of Public Health and Wellness offers value-added services to food service facilities that aren’t required, such as 24/7 assistance and a complimentary consultation ahead of a facility’s first inspection.

“In essence, you might say they’ve been getting this service for free,” he said.

Rhodes noted that the number of food service businesses, including traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, has increased in recent years, with the city having more than 4,000 food service facilities.

Each facility must be inspected at least twice a year, according to state regulations, or more if the restaurant has critical violations. The health department also is responsible for inspecting food vendors at events such as the Kentucky State Fair, he said, estimating that the Department of Public Health and Wellness’ 16 full-time and 1.5 part-time inspectors complete “well over 10,000 inspections” annually.

“You don’t have a foodie city without a food safe city,” Rhodes said.

Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]