by Sarah Einselen Pharos-Tribune
---- — Cass County's two new health inspectors say the funniest reaction they've gotten so far from area restaurant owners has nothing to do with food.
Eric Eldridge, a recent Purdue graduate, said it's the double-take that people give him when he mentions he's training Tom Clear, a longtime Cass County resident who started with the health department last month.
Eldridge is 23. Clear, 53, has a child that age.
"It's pretty fun seeing people's reaction to me being the young guy and training him," said Eldridge, chuckling.
"I'm old enough to be your dad," Clear pointed out. But, he added, the age gap isn't an issue between the two. "He knows what he's doing," Clear said. "It doesn't bother me."
And others get used to it quickly, he added. "His demeanor is professional ... and they respect that," said Clear.
Clear is the newest hire at the Cass County Health Department, which this year has seen a number of staffing changes, including the appointment of a new administrator. Eldridge started as a Cass County health inspector June 10.
Eldridge graduated from Purdue University in May with a bachelor's of science in biology.
"I've always been interested in public health," explained Eldridge. A native of LaPorte, he moved to Monticello after being hired in Cass County. Over the past several months, he's been attending training sessions to acclimate himself to the position.
There's been much to learn, he said, including a book full of public health laws he has to keep straight. "I was blessed with a good memory," added Eldridge — and if that fails him, he refers back to the book to cite the relevant portion of the public health code.
These last three weeks, he's been bringing Clear along to train on the food establishment inspections, septic inspections and environmental complaint investigations the two are tasked with.
The complaints could include "anything from roaches at a house to trash," said Eldridge. "Meth and lead take up quite a bit of them."
Clear isn't exactly a stranger to inspections. He's been in the industrial side of health and safety for about the last 25 years, he said. "Doing that led me to the public safety side. More than anything, it's the ability to help others."
His previous job, however, required travel throughout the week, meaning he'd barely make it back to his home near Clymers for the weekend.
"My family's here," he said, so he decided to apply for the job at the health department to allow more time at home.
And together, Eldridge and Clear hope to focus on educating the public about food and environmental safety.
"Most people do kind of freak out when the health inspector walks in," said Clear. However, he and Eldridge paint themselves more as a resource for food establishment owners or anyone else with questions about public health and safety.
"We're here to educate," said Eldridge. Clear echoed him: "They don't call it public service for nothing."
It's a tone administrator Bob Vernon has been sounding since joining the health department earlier this year.
"My philosophy is, we work for the people," said Vernon. "they don't work for us ... I just want to provide a good service, get a good reputation with the public — know that we're here, we're consistent and fair."
He believes that since bringing both Eldridge and Clear on, the health department has been able to get back on top of duties that had been slipping while the department was understaffed.
"Basically there's not as many complaints about things not getting done," said Vernon. "For a short time you had no inspector, sometimes you had one. Now those complaints aren't there."
Eldridge and Clear are still working on catching up — they estimate there's still about a two-month backlog of inspections at food establishments. But they expect to be back on top of things by the end of the year.
"2014 ought to just be a routine year," said Clear.
Staff at the Cass County Health Department can be reached at 574-753-7760.
Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151. Twitter: @PharosSME