In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Neil Abercrombie touted the progress his administration had made in pushing state government toward a speedy recovery in the wake of budget cuts.

“Because we did what needed to be done, we were able to restore critical public services such as agriculture, elevator inspections, vector control and restaurant inspectors,” the governor said.

That statement implies that inspections are up to date and department vacancies have been filled. Is that true of the four sectors the governor mentioned?

Agriculture

The Department of Agriculture’s duties range from inspecting airports to farming irrigation systems. The department used to employ 371 fulltime employees. In 2009, their numbers were reduced by about a third, leaving about 250 workers, which significantly impacted the state’s ability to keep up with inspections, according to agriculture department spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi.

One of the department’s responsibilities is agricultural inspections, which entail intercepting invasive species at harbors and airports. The department saw drastic reduction in its staff stationed at Honolulu International Airport — from 21 inspectors on duty each day to six or seven, according to the department. The Detector Dog program, which used dogs to help sniff out animal pests like snakes, was also terminated in 2009.

While the state does not track the number of backlogged agricultural inspections, it does keep count of how many interceptions are made at the airport. In 2009, the department made 1,103 interceptions, but that number dropped to 277 in 2011, according to the department. That’s a 75 percent drop in interceptions.

Abercrombie has restored some of these services, including the Detector Dog program, which was reinstated last year. In addition, in 2011 he approved the rehiring of 10 inspectors at the airport, which has helped boost the number of interceptions to 2009 levels, according to the department.

“One of the Governor’s priorities is to help us return to 2009 staffing levels,” Saneishi wrote in an email to Civil Beat.

The department is not quite there yet, as it has a total of 309 employees. This session, the department requested an additional 39 positions, which would bring the total number of employees to 348. Those additions – if approved by the Legislature — would not put the department back at its original staff of 371. But it’s still a lot more than the 250 workers it had two years ago.

Elevator Inspections

Almost 70 percent of Hawaii’s 6,848 elevators have not undergone a proper safety inspection in 2012, according to a report compiled by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. That means the state department has an inspection backlog of nearly 5,000 elevators.

“We haven’t been fully staffed since 1995,” department spokesman Bill Kunstman told Civil Beat in a recent interview. “That was the last time we were up to date on inspections,” he added.

In 1995, there were 21 full-time employees in the department, a number that has dwindled over the years, according to the report. In 2011, there were only 11 inspectors on staff, fewer than half of what was needed to accommodate the growing number of elevators and inspections that needed to be done, Kunstman wrote in the report.

Abercrombie signed into law Act 103 last year that allowed the department to hire 10 new employees, including six full-time elevator inspectors. These additions restored staffing levels to 21 employees, where they were originally at in 1995.

However, not all of the positions have been filled. The last elevator inspector was hired in January, and the department is still in search of a permanent branch manager and an elevator supervisor. Kunstman estimates that even with the additional staff, it will be at least a year before the department is able to significantly reduce its backlogged inspections.

Vector Control

Vector control, which monitors insects, rodents or birds that may transmit disease, used to be its own branch of the Department of Health but was consolidated into the state’s sanitation branch in 2009.

Before the consolidation, there were 57 positions in vector control. Today there are 17 positions statewide, with only 13 of them filled.

“We really cut back on what we do,” said Peter Oshiro, manager for the state’s sanitation branch which also covers food safety inspections. “We only answer to what we can handle now.”

Vector control entomologists used to monitor mosquitos and rodents all around Oahu, but now they are only able to monitor major points of entry like harbors and airports, said Oshiro.

And the department used to respond to house calls when residents phoned in their concerns, but due to staff cutbacks, it now only has the manpower to send entomologists out to the field when an entire community is affected.

Abercrombie has submitted a budget request this session to hire eight more Vector Control positions. The request, if granted, would bring the branch’s task force to 25 full-time employees, still less than half the size of the old independent branch but almost double its current numbers.

Restaurant Inspections

In order to keep tabs on more than 10,000 eateries in Hawaii, 68 full-time employees would be needed, according to the latest standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, the state currently has only 42 food safety inspectors, says branch manager Oshiro.

More than half of the state’s food establishments are on Oahu. Until recently, there were only 13 fulltime employees to routinely check more than 6,000 eateries, fewer than half of the FDA-recommended 40 inspectors, according to Oshiro. He said that although the state doesn’t keep track of the number of backlogged inspections, the staffing shortage has adversely affected the consistency of inspections.

“We have a very poor frequency rate of inspection right now — on Oahu, it’s 24 to 30 months between inspections, even for high-risk establishments that should be checked two or three times a year,” said Oshiro.

Additionally, many weekend vendors like food trucks are operating on expired permits, as reported by Hawaii News Now. Until recently, the DOH has not had been able to afford to pay inspectors overtime for night and weekend inspections, but increases in funding this session have allowed the state to crack down on illegal vendors.

Abercrombie’s Act 164, signed into law last year, added five new fulltime inspectors on Oahu this year, upping the count to 18. The department expects to have a total of 26 Oahu inspectors on board by the end of the year.

Even with the additional staff, Oshiro estimates that the department will still have a hard time reaching the FDA-recommended food safety inspections, especially for the “high-risk establishments,” or full service restaurants, that require three inspections per year.

“We expect to be able to conduct inspections at least once or twice a year for high and medium-risk establishments (fast food chains),” said Oshiro.


BOTTOM LINE: Abercrombie said that he has restored critical public services in agriculture, elevators, vector control and restaurants. A check of the staffing levels at three of the four of the departments shows significant improvement in the past two years. A request for additional staff is still pending this session for vector control and the agriculture department. While these departments are indeed on their way to restoring critical public services, backlogs in at least one department — elevator inspections — may take years to rectify. Abercrombie’s statement gives the impression that services have been completely restored, when in fact they are still in progress. The claim is misleading, and overstates the true state of affairs. Civil Beat concludes his statement to be HALF TRUE.