When Charles Gilliam became a health inspector more than 10 years ago, he knew his work would be far from glamorous. Still, he thought he could count on it to be steady.
After all, he and his colleagues -- who inspect food at establishments ranging from hot dog vendors and take-out Chinese food shops to crab houses and fine hotel restaurants -- are on the front lines "protecting the safety of the public," he says. Besides, food inspections are required by state law.
That's why news of the city's proposal to eliminate the food-control office has sent him and his 12 colleagues reeling.
"People were so stunned that no one could really express their thoughts," he said. "We were in shock. We still are."
The proposed elimination of food inspections would be only one of the blows to the city's Health Department if Baltimore had to absorb a $21 million cut in state aid -- part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to slash $450 million in state spending.
In a budget proposal laid out by the Schmoke administration Monday, all city agencies would have to pare spending by about XTC 6 percent. But the Health Department also faces a drop of nearly 25 percent in funds they specifically were to receive from the state this year. Such a cut -- $2.7 million -- would force the department to fire 103 school nurses and to shut down its effort to provide dental care to low-income schoolchildren.
The cuts would also eliminate the city's environmental watchdogs -- people who monitor air quality, water at public facilities such as swimming pools and spas, and food inspectors.
Mr. Gilliam, director of the Health Department's food and institutional facilities bureau, said his 12 inspectors find violations at virtually every restaurant they check. And, he said, they close an average of one restaurant a day in Baltimore because of unsanitary conditions or food contamination.
Violations range from cooks not properly washing their hands after using the bathroom to undercooked crabcakes to rodent infestation in bags of potato chips or candy.
"We don't know who is going to do our job if the department is eliminated," Mr. Gilliam said. "Nobody has talked about that yet."
A spokeswoman for the Health Department said, "I really don't know who would do these [inspections] or if they just wouldn't get done at all, and then we won't be in compliance with state law."
The acting city health commissioner, Elias Dorsey, said he could not recommend that anyone eat in restaurants if the city were forced to eliminate food inspectors. Many restaurant owners said the inspectors provide an invaluable service to their staffs as well as to their customers.
"Restaurant owners don't want to poison anyone. I mean, they do the best they can," said Tomas Sanz, owner of Thompson's Sea Girt Restaurant. "But sometimes you think you are doing everything OK and then the Health Department comes in and shows you that it's not OK."
An owner of Obrycki's Crab House disagreed, however, and said that if the food inspectors were ousted, self-regulation would force restaurateurs to keep their establishments clean and safe. "I think you'll find that most restaurants are going to do a good job whether the inspectors are there or not," said Richard Cernak. "I mean, if you are going to invest half a million dollars in a place, why would you do a sloppy job and let people get sick?"