Oak Bluffs inspectors on overload

Stretched health agent says hiring an assistant is critical; stretched building inspector has been advertising for an assistant for eight months.

Ade Solarin, health agent for the Town of Oak Bluffs, in December. – File photo Stacey Rupolo

The Oak Bluffs economy has roared back to life in the past five years. In 2011, the general fund balance, a key indicator of economic health, was $434,533 in the red. In 2015 it was almost $1.2 million in the black.

The town’s robust rebound has sparked a sharp increase in construction and renovation work. It has led to more food establishments opening, more people eating in them, and more waste being created. But the public health department, which makes sure the food that is served is safe to eat, and the waste that’s created doesn’t further damage the environment, does not have enough personnel to meet the growing demand, according to health agent Ade Solarin. For the second time in two years, he is appealing to the town for more help. He said the current policy of hiring a part-time inspector during the summer season, a difficult task in and of itself, does not allow the department to do the job properly.

“We just don’t have the resources to meet all the demands we are facing,” Mr. Solarin told The Times. “I tried to get funding for an assistant last year but was unsuccessful. Something needs to change.”

Mr. Solarin has the support of the board of health.

“We absolutely support Ade in getting an assistant,” board of health member Tricia Bergeron told The Times. “We actually have been trying to get that position for many years. Shirley [Fauteux] also had put this in our budget several times, only to get shot down … It is not possible for one person to do all that is required. And certainly not to do it properly.”

Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro agrees with Ms. Bergeron. “Ade does not have the help that he needs, and I feel strongly that the health department needs more staff,” he told The Times. “It will help to promote a more professional, user-friendly experience in town hall. It can take a long time to be thorough, and that can be frustrating to people. Ade really cares that the rules get followed. If he has more help, it will speed up the process.”

Mr. Barbadoro and Mr. Solarin work together on a wide range of building projects. Mr. Solarin estimates he reviews 95 percent of building applications for potential septic issues. “In the mix of all that, he has to inspect all the restaurants, and it’s almost never just one inspection,” Mr. Barbadoro said. “He’s got a ton of responsibility making sure the food that’s served is safe to eat. This town serves a lot of food during the hot summer months. If it’s not handled properly, you could have a disastrous outbreak. It’s not an easy job.”

Mr. Solarin took the Oak Bluffs health agent job in February 2015. “When I took this job, I didn’t have administrative support,” Mr. Solarin said. “In addition to doing inspections and writing reports, I was the person answering all the calls. It was a very difficult situation.”

In February, Alexandra Kral was hired as Mr. Solarin’s administrative assistant, and Mr. Solarin said she’s been a big help, but the workload still requires another inspector.

Long checklist

The duties of a health agent are wide-ranging. They include inspecting the food establishments — 106 in Oak Bluffs — a minimum of twice a year, and inspecting food at temporary events, which total 51 in Oak Bluffs so far this year. The state Department of Public Health (DPH) defines food establishments as “an operation that stores, prepares, packages, serves, vends, or otherwise provides food for human consumption.”

The health agent is also responsible for checking on housing code violations, sanitary code violations, and septic system compliance — an increasingly crucial function in the battle against nitrogen loading in Island ponds.

A health agent must also be well-versed, or in some cases certified, in seafood handling, medical waste disposal, lead paint and asbestos abatement, composting, tick-borne illnesses, volatile organic compounds, and emergency response to chemical and biological emergencies.

The 2015 Oak Bluffs Annual Report shows that, among the numerous services rendered and permits issued by the public health department, Mr. Solarin handled 1,983 technical assistance requests, 83 system inspections, 87 septic plan reviews, and 220 food inspections. He issued 278 pump-out permits and 110 food establishment permits.

Tough position to fill

Even if he gets the funding for an assistant, the position will require a highly specialized skill set. According to a draft of the job posting, the candidate will have to conduct Title V septic inspections and soil percolation tests, be well-versed in all aspects of food handling, and be a certified soil evaluator, lead paint inspector, sanitary code inspector, certified pool operator and certified food handling inspector. If the candidate does not have any of the certifications, he or she will have six months to obtain them.

The posting also lists the risks of the job, which include exposure to infections from septage overflow, contamination from oil spills, infectious disease exposure from rodents and infected fowl, and “hostility from dissatisfied clients.”

But the biggest hurdle Mr. Solarin sees in finding a qualified assistant is the ability for that person to find housing on the Island, or failing that, the ability to afford the commute from off-Island.

“On this Island, the No. 1 qualification is having a place to live,” Mr. Solarin said. “The [professional] qualifications are secondary.”

When Mr. Solarin was hired in February 2015, after an extensive search by the town, board of health chairman William White told The Times, “He’s going to move to the Island, which we found preferable to the other final candidates, who were going to commute from off-Island.”

Almost two years later, Mr. Solarin still does not live here.

“I knew housing was a problem here, but I had no idea it was this bad,” he said. “I’m a family man; they’re my top priority,” Mr. Solarin has a wife and 3-year-old daughter. “I’m not going to squeeze them into a studio apartment. For me to live here like I can off-Island is going to cost a lot.”

Mr. Solarin was hired last year at a salary of $70,741 per year. “The town was nice enough to give me a step increase, but with the cost of living or commuting here, it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight,” he said.

Mr. Solarin’s daily commute starts at his home in New Bedford: “That’s the closest I can get to this Island,” he said. After a 45-minute drive, traffic permitting, to Falmouth, he takes the 30-minute boat ride on the Patriot, all at his own expense. He estimates the boat alone costs him about $5,000 per year, not including parking. Adding to that, if the boats aren’t running and he can’t get back to the mainland, the cost of the hotel also comes out of his net pay. “If I did a $50,000 job off-Island, it would be the same amount of money, but without the stress of a long commute that involves getting on a boat,” he said.

Mr. Solarin is proposing a $64,000 salary for the assistant-inspector position. “If they’re coming from off-Island, they should have their commute cost covered. I don’t know if the town is going to go for that,” he said.

In an email to The Times on Wednesday, town administrator Robert Whritenour wrote, “The health agent has requested a full-time assistant in his budget submission. It will be hard to add that position given our Proposition 2½ revenue restrictions, but we will certainly look at it.”

Building department addition

The economic boom has also stretched the building department. The number of building permits issued has risen from 569 in 2012 to 1,184 in 2015, according to building inspector Mark Barbadoro. Mr. Barbadoro is better positioned to hire a full-time employee — posted as inspector/assistant zoning enforcement officer — in large part because he successfully lobbied selectmen to raise building permit fees, which they did by unanimous vote last December.

However, the position has been advertised for eight months, and has yet to be filled. “I’ve been trying this entire time to find someone to do the job for $65,000,” he told The Times.

In addition to the daunting housing situation, Mr. Barbadoro said, finding a qualified candidate is complicated by competition from the private sector. “I have to draw from either people who have degrees in construction-related fields or have six years of supervisory experience in a construction-related field,” he said. “People with these qualifications can work in the private sector and easily make over $100,000. Who’s going to quit a job making tons of money to take less money at a job where people are angry at you most of the time?” he said, laughing.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Barbadoro said he now has some promising candidates, who have to first be approved by the state board of building regulations and standards before they can take the local inspector exam. He hopes to hear from the board by mid-January.

“Ideally, I want that person to live on the Island,” Mr. Barbadoro said. “The Island has been very good to me, and it’s the best way to gain local knowledge.”