Mecklenburg County may need more health department inspectors and better technology to ensure swimming pools are checked for health and safety violations before welcoming swimmers, local elected officials say.
“It is time for us to take a long, hard look at how we’re doing this,” said Commissioner Jim Puckett, vice chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, which met Tuesday night.
At the commissioners’ meeting, employees with the health department defended current practices, which allowed nearly 350 public swimming pools – such as those in neighborhoods and at apartment complexes – to open late last month before going through a routine inspection.
The debate came just hours after Health Department Director Marcus Plescia announced he’ll resign effective Aug. 4, and County Manager Dena Diorio said in a statement: “Dr. Plescia realizes that new leadership is needed to improve our processes and produce better outcomes for the residents who depend on Public Health every day.”
Lisa Corbett, a program manager with the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said inspecting all pools before they open isn’t feasible with current staff numbers. And, she said, the health department wants to meet the business community’s expectations that swimming pools open in late May, around Memorial Day.
Mecklenburg County is the only one of North Carolina’s 100 counties that regularly permits swimming pools to open before an inspection. State regulations give health departments a 60-day window to inspect pools after they receive a permit. Other counties stopped giving pool operators the grace period because they say they found too many critical health and safety violations went unchecked for weeks into the summer.
A Charlotte Observer analysis before Memorial Day found Mecklenburg County gave operating permits to and skipped pre-season inspections of at least six pools that had been shut down last summer for significant health and safety violations. The report upset many of the county’s elected commissioners.
Others, though, such as Commissioner George Dunlap, said Mecklenburg County has stayed within the bounds of state law, and he chastised fellow members of the board for criticizing the pool inspection program.
County officials said they attempt to track failing pools year-over-year but the process is complicated by software the health department uses, which automatically converts a seasonal pool’s “status” to closed – but not suspended – at the end of the swim season. After the Observer’s reporting prompted health department officials to revoke a suspended pool’s permit, county employees said they will ask the software vendor for improvements.
So far, the county has not responded to the Observer’s repeated requests asking for information about the software currently used.
In response, state officials say they’re working on a change to North Carolina rules. The rule change would require health departments to inspect public swimming pools prior to issuing a permit. The proposed state regulation would not affect private swimming pools, such as those in backyards.
On Tuesday, Corbett and Cardra Burns, assistant health department director, assured commissioners that all 2016 suspended pools have either stayed closed since last summer or been re-inspected this year. But, they said, hundreds of other public pools that opened Memorial Day weekend around Charlotte may not be inspected until July.
Those late-in-the-season inspections are permitted under state law.
But one commissioner said Mecklenburg County – the largest in the state, with close to 1,400 public pools – should exceed state requirements. Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he’d support hiring more inspectors and providing county funding for better technology, if that would boost pool safety.
The gaps in swimming pool inspections this year, Ridenhour said Tuesday, contributed to his frustration with Health Department Director Plescia, who resigned ahead of the commissioners’ meeting.
“This was finally the thing that just blew my mind,” Ridenhour said, while mentioning a controversy that emerged earlier this year when the Observer reported the health department failed to notify about 185 women of abnormal test results from cervical cancer screenings performed at a Mecklenburg County-run health clinic. At the time, Plescia apologized, and four people no longer work at the health department as a result of the issue with Pap smear test results.
With the swimming pools, more staff and policy changes may be needed to ensure public health is protected, said Mecklenburg County commissioners Chair Ella Scarborough.
“It won’t happen again,” she said Tuesday.
Corbett said employees are studying the public health results of changing pool inspections and will look at how Mecklenburg County could staff to provide for pre-permit inspections at all seasonal pools.
The health department is responsible for a wide range of inspections and programs, including rodent and mosquito controls, tattoo parlors, drinking water wells, septic tanks and restaurant and hotel sanitation. The department, Corbett said, is often stretched thin, and the pool program has struck a balance to stay in compliance with state law while also sending inspectors on rounds to other establishments that require regular checks.
The balance is challenging, she said, but department leaders feel they’ve been fair and effective in letting swimming pools open for the summer with the expectation that inspectors make surprise visits within two months.
The Mecklenburg County commissioners did not vote on issues related to the pool program on Tuesday but said they’d like an update in the future to consider putting more money in the budget for the health department to improve inspections.