Budget cuts mean more work for health inspectors

HOUSTON Back when we all worked with Marvin Zindler, he followed these things every week. And every Friday, we'd get a reminder of what health inspectors were protecting us from at Houston's restaurants. Those inspectors are still on the job, but next year their job will tougher. There will be more to do in the same amount of time and no overtime.

Nikki Smith does 7 or 8 food safety inspections in the city of Houston every day. She's looking for things that could make you sick. And if she doesn't catch what's wrong, there's a chance you could catch something else.

"The commonality of all people is food. Everybody likes to eat. They want to serve the food. I just want to make sure they serve it safely," said Smith.

Next year, city budget cuts mean she and her colleagues will have to do more with less. The Health Department eliminated one city inspector and is reassigning responsibility for 30 percent of the inspectors to another program. They'll still look for stuff in city restaurants, but they'll now do two inspections at once.

"There are fewer people to do the same amount of work," we said to Ron Sandberg with the Houston Health Department.

"That's true," he responded.

It is the Health Department's concession to budget cuts. One manager say it's actually, believe it or not, an opportunity.

"There's always room for improvement," said Sandberg. "In this particular case, it was budget restraints that caused us to take some fresh looks at how we operate and come up with better ideas on how to change things for the better."

Our dear friend, Marvin Zindler, who followed inspectors for years, making the gross seem glamorous, likely would've said it differently. But with the city's financial condition, there likely isn't another choice.

And there's no other choice for inspectors like Smith, who next year will have to do more inspections with the same amount time.

"My whole thing is I'm going to go for quality over quantity so I'm not going to try to squeeze in ten inspections if I have to whip through an inspection," she said. "I am not about that."

The cuts at the Health Department don't stop with restaurant inspections. The department lost 31 percent of its environmental investigators, the people who look after pollution and dumping and dust in your neighborhood. The city says they will still do the same amount of work, too. It just may take a little longer.

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