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The Florida State Agency Charged with Protecting Patrons of Hotels and
 Restaurants Under Scrutiny; Hotels Escaping Required Inspections
By Stephanie Garry, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 12, 2007--TALLAHASSEE -- The state agency charged with protecting patrons of hotels and restaurants has not inspected enough businesses to meet state law in at least two years and does not expect to be able to comply this year.

The issue, highlighted in a legislative committee meeting this week, comes on the heels of the carbon monoxide poisoning of a 26-year-old man in a Key West resort.

The suspected cause of his death is a malfunctioning boiler, one of 44 items that is supposed to be checked by inspectors at the division of hotels and restaurants, part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Records from the September inspection of that hotel, the Doubletree Grand Key Resort, show that no problem was found with the boiler, though there was no record that a professional inspection had been done.

Bill Veach, director of the hotels and restaurants division, told the Senate Committee on General Government Appropriations that the division will make only 83 percent of the required inspections this year, even though it got 12 new positions and $300,000 for cars from the Legislature in last year's session.

"I think we all are concerned when we have a statutory rule requirement that's not being met," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican. "We're all vitally interested in protecting the public."

After a 2005 government audit revealed the problem, the division pushed to improve, upgrading the handheld devices used for inspections, redesigning its website and hiring and training 12 new inspectors.

Veach stressed that the division is making strides: Two years ago, just 74 percent of hotels and restaurants were inspected. And inspectors are handing out more citations, too.

Emergency closures increased an estimated 66 percent in one year.

"We've improved the quality of our inspections significantly," Veach said, "and we've made some gains in the number of required inspections."

Still, the Dec. 27 death of Thomas Lueders has added to the scrutiny of the division.

"The department, if not the city, might have dropped the ball, but it's too early to start blaming people," said state Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat. Saunders said he's considering filing legislation that would require hotels to put sensor alarms near carbon monoxide-producing equipment like boilers.

Lueders' death and the fallout aside, the department's noncompliance bothered some senators at Thursday's meeting. One asked why some businesses were inspected twice while others not at all.

Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican, questioned the underachievement despite the resources the Legislature gave the division last year.

"It would stand to reason to me that if you added another 10 percent of your workforce, that would get you there," he said.

Veach said Holly Benson, the newly appointed secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has made it a priority to determine what resources the agency needs to keep up with a growing industry and finally comply with state law.

"We've seen growth in this industry throughout the past seven years," Veach said. "It's been fairly constant, even through the hurricane years."

Miami Herald staff writers Cammy Clark and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

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