The proposed elimination of a part-time dairy inspector in Sonoma County is drawing pushback from dairy farmers unhappy with the lack of outreach the county did before preparing to scale back the dairy program to consist of just one inspector.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to decide at its next meeting whether to go through with the reduction as part of an adjustment to fees in the public health division of the Health Department that are meant to offset the cost of certain services those programs provide. The changes were presented Aug. 1 by county Director of Health Services Tina Rivera and were followed by a public hearing on the proposals.
“Our dairies are taking a beating. In fact, we’re losing them right and left.”Supervisor David Rabbitt
The fee adjustments were calculated by a consulting firm that also looked at the true cost of each program. The firm, Sacramento-based Wohlford Consulting, recommended adding two full-time employees and one part-time employee to the environmental health and safety program and eliminating the part-time dairy inspector, which was being utilized for only about 60 percent of the part-time hours they were on the job.
The hundreds of proposed fee changes include both reductions and increases in different areas of animal services and environmental health and safety, ranging from pet licenses to food facility fees and more.
Supervisors David Rabbitt and James Gore both said they were initially supportive of the fee changes but were not on board with eliminating the dairy inspector position.
“Our dairies are taking a beating. In fact, we’re losing them right and left,” Rabbitt said.
‘We have a disconnect there’
The Sonoma County Environmental Health program covers inspections for both Sonoma County and Marin County. Since 2000, the number of dairies in those counties has declined from 144 to 77, with 55 of those in Sonoma County and 22 in Marin County.
Rabbitt told Rivera that he had heard from constituents in the dairy industry that said there was no outreach about making this decision, despite the claim during the presentation that there would be no impact to farmers.
“We have a disconnect there that I think we have to fix,” Rabbitt said.
Six dairy farmers or representatives spoke during the public hearing following Rivera’s presentation. Many said that no outreach was done to inform them of the proposed changes that would reduce the number of inspectors available while also increasing certain fees in the industry.
Dairy farmer Doug Beretta, who is also president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told the board that the distances the inspectors have to travel make it essential to have more than one available.
“The time it takes a dairy inspector to get to us when it’s needed cannot be handled with one inspector,” Beretta said.
He said he recently had to dump 1,500 gallons of milk after a refrigerator failed and he was not able to get an inspector to visit in time to determine if the milk was sellable.
“We need both inspectors,” he said.
But Beretta said an even bigger concern for him was the process the county was using to both increase fees on dairy farmers while making the staffing decision without adequate outreach. Four other dairy farmers and one industry representative, speaking both remotely and in-person, echoed his comments.
A meeting of minds
Kyle Lutz, a representative of industry consultant Western United Dairies, said the inspections are an integral part of food safety that farmers value a lot.
“Our farmers were disappointed that no outreach was conducted. We support the idea of having a get-together, having a meeting to discuss this issue further,” Lutz said.
Supervisors voted 4-0 to approve the proposed fee changes without including the proposal to eliminate the part-time dairy inspector. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was absent. Gore cast his vote remotely.
Animal service fees that are proposed to decrease include those for pet licenses, adoption, spaying and neutering. Fees that will increase include the fee for having to surrender a violent pet.
Environmental health and safety fees range from boat and food service inspections, to drilling, cannabis sales, and more. Many fees would increase by more than 100 percent, including fees for boring, registering a compost facility, and operating a mobile food business.
The fees and the fate of the dairy inspector will again be considered at the board’s meeting Aug. 15.