DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) - A 2 NEWS investigation has uncovered that the state is owed more than $2 million in fines, all from bars and restaurants that allowed smoking, even after it was banned.
In Montgomery County, the smoking fines total nearly $300,000.
A lot of that is coming from bars and restaurants that continued to let customers smoke, even though it was illegal.
2 NEWS Investigates found, a lack of enforcement by the state has made those fines hard to collect. Elizabeth Enterman knows she broke the law.
"We broke the law. I understand the fines," she said.
She has stacks of fines, court documents and collection notices reminding her that she owes the Montgomery County Public Health Department more than $53,000.
All of it fine money for allowing customers to smoke in her bar Ziggy's in Dayton, despite Ohio's smoking ban.
Natalie: "Why weren't you following the law in the first place?"
Elizabeth Enterman: "I didn't agree with it and because they were not enforcing it."
She tells 2 NEWS Investigates she put an end to the smoking inside Ziggy's last summer after the health department threatened to pull her liquor license.
She still owes money that's becoming increasingly harder to find.
Natalie: "Are you paying the fines?"
Enterman: "I was paying them on a regular basis, but business just really bottomed out this summer. I have missed a few payments. As it picks up, I will pick those payments back up again."
2 NEWS Investigates obtained a list of the top ten violators in Montgomery County and how much they owe the public health department based off outstanding fines.
All together it's about $300,000, money that would help the department conduct inspections after hours and keep the smoke free program running.
We asked Mark Case, the Director of Environmental Health with the Montgomery County Health Department, about the amount of uncollected fines and why that number is so high even though inspections began six years ago.
"The state wasn't ready to enforce a strict collections policy and so lots of departments had lots of fine letters issued and simply fines weren't being paid."
He said they're slowly collecting more fines. They work with the Ohio Attorney General's Office now and collection agencies to get the money or at least put the businesses on a payment plan. They're also using the threat of removing liquor licenses.
Natalie: "Do you think you are ever going to see this money?"
Case: "I think we will see some of it, sure."
Case said it's not about the money. It's keeping those customers in bars and restaurants breathing cleaner air, but we found possible violations continue in at least one of the top ten establishments on the list that was given to us by the health department.
When we stopped by Dr. Doodles in Dayton to get comment for this story, we spotted ashtrays out on their bar. That is also illegal.
The owner says there's no smoking going on, and that they have hired an attorney to deal with the fines, but it's been years since the ban took effect.
There are still businesses allowing smoking and the public health department still can't guarantee tax payers that all those fines will be collected.
Natalie "Is it painting a picture to other businesses to say it's ok to do this. We won't really have to pay these fines?"
Mark: "Early on, I think that's exactly what happened. I think in the last two years the AG's office, the State Heath Department, legislators recognized that it’s a problem and they put increasing resources into the enforcement part and collections part of that fine collection process."
Case tells me it's not easy to fine an establishment that allows smoking. They have to get a complaint, then that complaint has to be investigated.
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