Head of Denver’s public health dept. wants higher violation fines

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The head of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment wants the ability to raise fines for public health violations up to $5,000.

DENVER — Public health violation fines are too low, according to the person responsible for issuing public health violations in Denver.

Bob McDonald, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE), wants Denver City Council to increase the maximum public health violation fine to $5,000 from what it currently is, which is $999.

“This seems like a significant increase, but it has never been increased before,” McDonald told a Denver City Council committee. “This is not because of the pandemic. We were going to move this effort forward before the pandemic, but we just didn’t get it done in time.”

DDPHE can issue citations for:

  • Selling tobacco to minors
  • Unleashed pets
  • Air pollution
  • Food safety violations
  • (Previously) COVID-19 social distancing and mask order violations

“We saw many businesses very early on in the pandemic, and again some businesses even before the pandemic, where they just saw it as the cost of doing business,” said McDonald.

According to statistics provided by DDPHE, 949 citations were issued in 2020, compared to 2,622 in 2019 and 2,032 in 2018.

Last year, one-third of the citations ended up in court.

“We had to issue 333 tickets to court for people who failed to comply with our orders,” said McDonald. “Instead of sending people to court, we want to issue a higher level fine. I think we’re really going to see more compliance with those businesses that might be a little bit more lucrative and can pay that $999. I think we’re going to see a high level of compliance without having to issue 333 tickets to court.”

In trying to convince the city council committee, ahead of a full city council meeting, McDonald provided comparisons with other cities.

For air pollution violations, Salt Lake City, which has a smaller population, can fine a business up to $10,000.

Washington, D.C. is about the same population as Denver and can fine up to $37,500.

Seattle is slightly bigger in population than Denver and can fine up to $17,000.

For water pollution, Salt Lake, Baltimore and Nashville can fine up to $10,000, and they are all smaller in population than Denver.

Washington, D.C. can fine up to $50,000.

The city council will have to vote on this ordinance change before it can take effect.

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