Thursday, September 13th, 2007
Mercer County may surrender
Health officials considering whether to give state the duty of policing smokers
By Shelley Grieshop
Mercer County continues to reel in an abnormally high number of smoking complaints, leading health officials to question whether it's financially in their best interest to continue their duty as "smoke police."
According to Ohio law, health departments have the option to do the investigation and enforcement process of complaints against smoking in public places or turn the job over to the state. Only six counties and one city health department have opted out so far, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
"Do we want to continue this or surrender to the state?" Mercer County Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser asked board members meeting Wednesday. "Our county has been hit hard with complaints, some are just retaliatory, not valid, and make our job extra difficult. This continues to be a struggle."
According to figures obtained this week from the Ohio Department of Health, 208 complaints have been lodged in Mercer County - most against area veterans clubs. Neighboring counties have much less, such as Allen County with a population 21/2 times Mercer County and 121 complaints.
Although a decision was not made during this week's meeting, board members were informed of the rising costs and strain on manpower to investigate complaints, send out letters and document businesses and clubs that are not abiding the smoke-free workplace law that took effect Dec. 7. Actual enforcement began in May.
Masser said he's "heard through the grapevine" that at least some of the five places issued fines are planning to appeal, which will cost the department even more time and money to hold a hearing.
Does the health department get any reimbursement? A first-time offense costs a violator $100; the money is paid to the state and eventually about 90 percent returns to the local health department.
Michelle Kimmel, the county's director of environmental health, said the state isn't keeping up with the speed complaints are being filed locally. She recently accessed the state's Web-based program to send out a second fine notice to a club and discovered Columbus officials have yet to draft it.
"The language hasn't even been developed for (second fine letters)," she said. "When I called them, they said it wasn't done yet and wouldn't be ready until Sept. 22."
Another frustration she and other health department investigators across the state have encountered is the security systems at many of the private clubs. While investigators wait to be "buzzed" in, members inside are clearing the area of ashtrays and cigarettes, she said.
"We've been told we could get the police to escort us or even a search warrant if necessary," she said, but added law enforcement surely has better things to do.
She's also aware that when she shows up for random evening checks, bar and club owners start phone chains to warn each other.
To date, the county has issued fines to five places: the Eagles, Moose and VFW in Celina, Wendelin Tavern and the American Legion in Coldwater. The Moose was recently issued a second fine notice that carries a penalty of $500, she said.
Masser and other board members aren't sure why so many complaints have been filed locally. They do know some have been in retaliation and those cases will continue to be dismissed. Frustrated with the process, they've decided to carry on for now.
"The obvious solution is better compliance," Masser added.
More than 13,000 complaints have been filed so far across the state following the passage of Ohio's Smoke-Free Workplace Act by voters in November.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, there are 280,000 businesses/clubs across the state that must comply.
Mercer County continues to have a high number of complaints filed, per capita, against private clubs and businesses - 208. In comparison, neighboring counties have much less: Auglaize, 55; Van Wert, 32; Darke, 13; and Allen, 121.
Counties with similar populations to Mercer County (41,303 per 2006 estimates) and their current complaints filed also are much less: Preble, 35; Fulton, 20; Clinton, 20; Madison, 38; Ottawa, 106; and Highland, 84.
- Shelley Grieshop