Thursday, January 10th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Area bar owner seeks strict smoking ban enforcement
  A restaurant/bar owner along Grand Lake is pleading with the local health department to beef up enforcement of the smoking ban law to create an even playing field for all businesses and private clubs.
Ralph Strope, owner of Windy Corners, politely spoke out at the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department meeting Wednesday, telling board members that law-abiding businesses are watching their profits go out the window.
"I've been (losing) about $200 to $300 per week since this started," Strope said.
He is following the letter of the law and subsequently watching his customers go to other businesses where smoking is still permitted, he said. Some of his remaining customers smoke in the beer garden he created last year but in the dead of winter most opt to go where they can illegally smoke indoors, he said.
"You know who these locations are by the number of complaints that you have received. Everyone will get a few complaints called in anonymously from disgruntled customers, but those establishments that receive a lot of complaints are the violators," he told board members.
Michelle Kimmel, the health department's director of environmental health, continues to struggle with the mounting task of investigating the county's unusually high number of complaints per population, properly documenting reports and issuing citations.
"The complaints have really gone up the last couple weeks," she said, adding it likely was due to the holiday season and larger crowds at area bars and clubs.
Mercer County, with a population of about 41,000, has received 287 complaints of smoking allowed at businesses since the enforcement process of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act began in May. That number places the county 19th among 127 county and city health departments in Ohio with the most complaints filed.
What's truly disturbing about the ranking is that all but one of the counties and cities with more complaints than Mercer County have populations above 140,000, and likely larger health department staffs to handle the complaints. Ohio counties with similar populations as Mercer County have tallied only about 50 complaints, according to information obtained from the Ohio Department of Health by The Daily Standard.
One of the options discussed by the local health board on Wednesday and at previous meetings was to give the job of enforcement of the smoking ban back to the state. Kimmel said it's her wish.
"I think that's the quickest way that change at the state level, as far as rule changes, is going to come about," she said. "It would send a strong message to the state that says this is more than local health departments can handle. As soon as the state begins to choke on all the same hassles we've been dealing with, and I think maybe they already are starting to, they'll quickly change what needs to be changed to make it more effective or manageable."
The problem on the horizon may well be the lack of staff at the state level. According to Ohio Department of Health spokesman Kristopher Weiss, only one person is responsible for updating the online program of complaint information, which is accessed by local officials to complete enforcement duties. That same person, a woman, is in charge of investigating complaints for the 11 counties/cities that have washed their hands of the investigation and enforcement process, he said.
"Something will have to be done if the locals keep opting out," Weiss admitted. "We'll address it as we get there."
The state has given local departments no extra funds for their enforcement efforts and are slow to reimburse them the 90 percent from each fine paid by violators to the state of Ohio.
Since enforcement began, Kimmel has issued seven fines at the first offense level of $100, three fines at the next $500 level and is waiting for online consolidation of reports by the state so she can issue a more serious $1,000 fine to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Celina.
Auglaize County data was not available at press time.
Concerns by board members continue to be voiced for Kimmel's safety while investigating bars and clubs after dark. Board members continued to discuss the idea of hiring outside help, however, the funds just aren't there, they said.
Board member Bill Goodwin said issuing fines isn't going to deter any bar or club owners from allowing patrons to light up. There needs to be something more, he added.
"Close them down for a couple weekends," he said, even though he knows the health department doesn't have the power to do that or take away food licenses for smoking violations. "Right now, we're not really punishing them."
Strope said no one he knows likes the law and many think it doesn't apply to them.
"Some people feel if they didn't vote for it they don't have to obey it," he added.
Strope suggested that all state officials, such as liquor control officers, should be able to help local departments with the enforcement process if they witness violations while on the job.
Board members took no action Wednesday on the issue.
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