Denver’s restaurateurs hurting from the Great Recession agreed to a deal in which the Department of Environmental Health stopped posting reports of critical violations for customers to see, in exchange for accepting higher fines for infractions.  

But two years later, some members of the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) believe the Mile High City has turned that agreement into a cash machine to raise badly needed revenue for the city and county of Denver.

Police departments in cash-strapped cities are sometimes said to use ticket quotas to make budget, and Denver restaurateurs are likewise alleging that inspections are now about revenue, not food safety.

CRA president Peter M. Meersman says fines last year produced about $610,000 more revenue than in 2008, the year before the city-industry deal was struck.  He acknowledges that posting critical violation notices on the front door was not good for business.

The postings were not only hurting business, they often had no relevance to the current conditions of the restaurant, he said. “The postings took place long after the particular violations occurred. Posting is a very severe penalty for sometimes routine violations.”

Under the new system, Denver Environmental Health gave up levying a $300 fine after three consecutive critical violations, and instead charged no fine after the first violation, $250 after the second, and $500 for the third up to $2,000 in a 12-month period.

A critical violation involves something that is likely to cause foodborne illness.

Now Meersman is hearing from restaurant association members who complain that the new fee schedule is being used to get solve the cash-strapped city-county government’s revenue woes.

He says CRA is not making that claim, but the association does monitor fine revenue collected from its members.   Last year, Denver restaurants in 8,090 inspections paid fines totaling $731,900.   In 2008, 2009 and 2010 — all before the new schedule — fine revenues, respectively, were $122,335, $157,670 and $118,995.

More than half (55 percent) of Denver’s 1,230 restaurants were fined in 2011.  In the previous three years, the number of establishments paying fines ranged from 29 to 35 percent.

Bob McDonald, environmental health director for the city-county government, told the Denver Post that restaurateurs are playing with misinformation.  He said it was understood the new system would result in high fines and inspectors are required by law to write up critical violations.

The change itself got plenty of attention, according to Meersman.  He said it dates back to discussions in February 2009 and was approved by both the Denver City Council and Denver Board of Health.  He says CRA publications covered it, and even points to a story in Food Safety News from early 2011.

In 2010,  Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was in an easy campaign for governor of Colorado.  Himself a former restaurant and brewpub owner, Hickenlooper received financial support from CRA, but Meersman says it an “insulting question” to even suggest the policy change and the election were in any way connected.

CRA members are getting together  today in Denver with Department of Environmental Health officials in a town hall-style meeting to see if the two sides can settle any of their current differences.