Delaware County businesses may be stuck with inspection fees 500 percent higher than they currently pay, while local municipalities will see a drop in their much-needed revenue, under a new fee schedule released as part of the new county health department plan.

A top priority of the Democratic majority elected to the Delaware County Council in 2019 was creating a county health department. The county is the largest in the state by population without its own health department.

For months, township officials have been warning Delaware County businesses may face double inspection fees when the county’s health department finally gets up and running. Now the sudden release of a fee schedule shows some businesses will see their basic health inspection fee jump from $50 to $266 or more, depending on the size of the establishment.

Then there’s the confusion as townships, which say they’ve received little guidance from the county, have already put their usual inspections into their 2022 budgets. Does that mean some Delaware County businesses have to pay twice?

“I’m not clear on that,” said Nicole S. Whitaker, township manager for Darby. “It’s a gray area.”

“I don’t know how they’re justifying these expenses,” says Brian Razzi with the Delaware County Planning Commission. “I think it going to create a huge burden. The fees are going to be way different than they were when the municipalities were doing the inspections.”

Concerns among municipal officials over the county health department and inspection fees have been ongoing for months. Some municipalities hoped to opt-out of county inspections and continue to handle them locally. Informed in May that would not be an option, David Schrieber of Tinicum township replied, “Based on preliminary conversations with my board, they’re not going to take that lightly,” Schrieber said. “There are so many questions that, unless you hear from an authority higher than the county, there’s going to be a little disagreement, shall I say.”

The growing distrust between municipalities and the county only heightened when Delaware County officials released a letter on the Friday before November’s elections that included the county’s new fee schedule. Fridays are considered “news dump” days when government agencies often release controversial or unflattering information in hopes of avoiding intense scrutiny.

The new fees are controversial, to say the least.

For example, Razzi says Clifton Heights, Colwyn, and Prospect Park still charge just $50 for basic health inspections. Under the new county fee schedule, the minimum charge is $266 — more than five times higher. And while in most communities a follow-up inspection confirming compliance doesn’t involve another fee, the county adds follow-up fees of $237 and $332.

“A mom and pop hoagie shop is going from $50 to $266, and if they require a re-inspection it’s another two hundred bucks or so,” said Razzi. “All of the towns I work for include one free re-inspection.”

In addition to the financial burden, business owners say that hurts the relationship local health inspectors have built with local restaurants.

“The ability to go right to my local municipality and handle that and be done in 20 minutes to a half-hour — maybe set up an appointment for them to come and see what needs to be done – you’re taking that away,” said Tom Thornton, managing partner of J.D. McGillicuddy’s, told Delaware Valley Journal.

“Before, people could just call someone from the local municipality and get someone to come out,” says Rizzi. “Now, they have to go through this whole process.”

Meanwhile, Darby township is in the process of sending out renewal letters.

“We do fire inspections, we do health inspections, and we do annual inspections of residential rental properties,” says Whitaker. “The letters are due back to the municipality with their annual payment by January 31, so we are moving forward with our plans to do health inspections for 2022 because we do not have any clear direction from the health department.”

It is not for lack of trying on Whitaker’s part.

“They [county officials] came to meetings a couple of times to discuss it with us and the first impression was that they had no clue about what it all entailed,” says Whitaker. “It’s scary when the people that are putting this together can’t answer the questions,” says Whitaker. “From a financial standpoint, this is going to be a financial hit for local government because we’re all in our budget season and fees are in budgets for 2022.”

“They’ve never reached out to discuss anything like that,” says Rizzi. “They just said this is what we are going to do, and this is what we are going to charge.”

Delaware County is one of the largest counties in the nation without its own health department. Establishing such a department is expected to cost more than $10 million in its first year, and the department is scheduled to begin operating in 2022.

“Delaware County expects to receive much of its funding from federal and state sources,” said Jim Diffley of IHS Markit told DVJournal in August. “Given that, a substantial part of annual revenues are expected to come from county taxes, new county taxes.” IHS Markit is the consulting firm hired to study the costs of setting up and operating a county health department.

Despite the frustrations, Whitaker says she believes the county should definitely have a health department.

“It’s long overdue,” Whitaker added. “However, right now, when we call the county, there’s no assistance, there’s nobody to call.”

Some health experts disagree, noting telemedicine has changed the dynamic for providing health services, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Those critics argue building a brick-and-mortar government bureaucracy in the digital age makes no sense.

For municipal officials like Razzi, the real issue is local customer service.

“At the end of the day, it is not going to be businesses that are affected, it is going to be the consumers,” says Rizzi. “The businesses are just going to pass the fees onto the consumers through higher prices.”

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