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Florida Hotel Inspectors Lack Teeth in
 Punishing Dirty, Sloppy Hotels
By Scott Powers and Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 31, 2009 --Over and over since early 2008, state hotel inspectors kept encountering problems at the Carefree Inn & Suites in Kissimmee.

Four times, a boiler certificate was expired or missing, meaning there was no way to be sure the boiler was safe. Trash piled outside the Dumpster was cited four times; "fictitious" posted room rates three times; and faulty ventilation systems three times. Live roaches, mold and a feces smear on a wall also were found. At one point, the motel was operating with an expired license.

During the course of seven inspections in 17 months, the inspectors recorded 104 violations, including 51 deemed "critical" -- meaning they posed a safety threat, or serious sanitation or consumer concerns.

Twice, the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants issued formal warnings. Twice, the inspectors recommended administrative complaints, which would trigger fines.

But, as with the vast majority of hotel and motel problems it encounters in Central Florida, the agency issued no fines and took no enforcement actions against the hotel at 4900 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, though the state says it has two cases pending.

A spokeswoman for the motel said it was not fined because it fixed the violations. "If we have a problem, we take care of it right away," she said.

An Orlando Sentinel analysis of state inspections data and records suggests that the Division of Hotels and Restaurants gives wayward or struggling hoteliers little reason to fear state regulators, even for shocking conditions ranging from bloody sheets to rat feces, or chronic problems such as those seen at the Carefree Inn.

Because of the Sentinel's inquiries, the agency decided to dramatically change its policies dealing with complaints of bedbug infestations as well as routine inspections for bedbugs. The agency's overall inspection process, however, hasn't changed.

During the past three years, inspectors conducted more than 7,000 routine inspections of Central Florida hotels and motels, which rent 138,518 rooms. They found 27,000 violations, including 13,000 considered "critical."

Yet the state fined just 67 lodges a total of $30,350.Most fines were $250 or less.

The reason: The agency tries to work cooperatively with hoteliers, whenever possible, to fix problems, said Bill Veach, director of the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants.

The 38 state inspectors in the agency's District 4 office review 323 hotels and 585 motels in Central Florida down to St. Lucie County at least twice a year, inspecting everything from hallway lighting to room rates, door locks to bathroom sanitation.

The same inspectors also review thousands of restaurants and other rental lodgings, including apartment buildings.

Lower red-flag rate The Orlando Sentinel analysis of state complaints and inspection reports revealed signs that inspectors have a softer touch with hotels, especially compared with restaurants:

--In the past three years, dating to July 1, 2006, there were 133 state inspections in which a District 4 hotel or motel was found with 10 or more violations deemed by inspectors as "critical." Inspectors issued warnings or recommended fines in 81 of those cases, but only two of them, both in Orlando, resulted in any fines.

--Only once in the past three years has the state tried to shut an Orlando-area hotel because of public-health or safety concerns, and that was because the inspector discovered the motel's electricity had been shut off. But by the time inspectors delivered the order in November 2007, the Econo Lodge Polynesian in Kissimmee had already gone out of business.

--In routine inspections, state inspectors check common areas and service areas, and inspect a handful of unoccupied rooms "from a guest's point of view," division officials say. But they carry no specialized equipment other than a flashlight and do not routinely strip beds, toss couch cushions or move furniture to check for bugs or other concerns.

That contrasts sharply with how the same inspectors deal with restaurants.

During that three-year period, they inspected 9,420 restaurants in the eight-county Central Florida district and assessed 2,100 fines, totaling more than $2 million.

Across the state, the division fined restaurants nearly $10 million -- and hotels less than $250,000.

Veach said inspectors work with hoteliers to get problems fixed cooperatively and quickly, so there is no need for fines. And compared to food-borne illnesses, which can be deadly, motel violations are rarely life-threatening, he said.

"In food service, there are many issues to deal with and the situations are so volatile, changing hour to hour," Veach said. "Whereas there are fewer things to look for in the hotels."

Some guest complaints, though, are stomach-turning: semen-stained sheets, animal feces, rats, roaches, mold, even a hypodermic syringe that one woman said was in the bathtub at a motel near Orlando International Airport.

However, Veach and others note such complaints are also comparatively rare: There were 474 formal complaints against Central Florida hotels in three years.

Time given for fixes When outraged guests do complain, hotel inspectors often say they can't find the alleged violations. About 60 percent of the complaints filed in the past three years resulted in the inspector checking "allegations not observed." Only two of the complaints resulted in fines, totaling $900. "By law we can't cite a violation that we don't observe," Veach said. "Oftentimes I think these complaints not only go to us but go to the front desk, and ... they probably address many of them before we get there."

Hotels hit with violations -- no matter how many -- also get time to fix them.

The Desert Inn Resort, a 219-room beach hotel in Daytona Beach, was handed 56 critical violations during a March 20, 2007, inspection, the most of any hotel in the area in the past three years.

Co-owner and manager Dennis Devlin said he recalled the inspection as the hotel's worst ever. It came during college spring break, the craziest time for Daytona Beach hotels. He said he was certain all violations were fixed within a few days, but he said he could not recall specifics, and he did not recall it being that bad.

"If there were that many criticals, it would close the hotel, and the hotel's in great shape," he said.

The hotel was not shut down and was not fined.

To be sure, the vast majority of the 908 licensed hotels and motels in District 4 keep themselves clean, safe and fair -- if for no other reason than to compete in this crowded and dynamic lodging market during the Internet age, when any disappointed guest can smear a lodge's name anonymously across popular Web forums.

Sometimes, though, a motel can deteriorate as its owner struggles against a bad economy.

Strapped for cash -- and guests -- owner Harsh Manchanda said he converted some rooms in his East Palm Resort motel in Kissimmee into low-income transitional housing in late 2007, while reserving the rest for regular guests.

The motel at 2323 E. Irlo Bronson went downhill quickly: Some tenants caused problems, but Manchanda could not afford legal fees to evict trouble-makers.

The Division of Hotels and Restaurants received multiple complaints, calling the motel "disgusting" and "unsafe," and urging the state to shut it down. After visiting it eight times in a 12-month period, the division finally issued a $1,100 fine last December.

But it wasn't until the utilities were shut off that the Osceola County's Building Office, not the state agency, declared it dangerous. On Jan. 14, the county ordered everyone out and closed it. The motel's state lodging license then lapsed and expired on April 1.

However, neither of those shortcomings kept the East Palm from passing its next state inspection.

"It is possible that the building was closed by the county for some structural or similar violation, which our inspectors are not trained to recognize or inspect for," explained Jenn Meale, spokeswoman for the division.

Manchanda has since rebuilt and reopened the motel as an Econo Lodge Inn & Suites. Since the name change, his hotel has passed two inspections.

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To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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