Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Restaurateurs will dispute inspection fee

Restaurateurs will dispute inspection fee

Eatery owners argue the new expense will harm them next year.

Jaime Baranyai • News-Leader • July 2, 2008

Restaurant owners in Springfield are having trouble stomaching new costs the city will charge them next year and say they plan to fight the fees.

They'll have help from the Missouri Liberty Coalition, a local taxpayer advocacy organization.

"We want to see this most recent fee go away," Missouri Liberty Coalition Vice Chairman Travis Maddox said Tuesday afternoon at a gathering with restaurant owners. "It's really unnecessary."

The fees, designed in large part to cover the cost of restaurant inspections, will range from $100 to $325 a year, depending on the type of establishment and the food it prepares, according to Kevin Gipson, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

The annual fees, set to begin Jan. 1, come in the wake of city budget cuts. But the fees, which are expected to produce roughly $232,000, won't make up for the $467,000 that was slashed from the health department's budget, Gipson said.

Restaurant owners say they too are trying to cope with financial challenges -- and the fees will add to their burden.

Rep. Charlie Denison of Springfield attended Tuesday's gathering at Clary's and agreed the additional costs couldn't come at a worse time for restaurant owners.

"This is the wrong time to be hitting you with any kind of a tax, and that's exactly what this is," Denison said.

No one feels the pinch of the struggling economy like restaurant owners, said James Clary, who hosted the meeting at his restaurant on Battlefield Road.

Clary said business is down in the restaurant industry at a time when operating costs are high and heading higher.

"I'm not in favor of the fees, particularly in hard economic times," he said. "It's not the $325. It's just the fact that they took that action, and what are they going to do next."

It's an action Tom Martz doesn't think the city has authority to take based on his research of the city charter.

"I do not believe the city has a right to assess these fees on restaurant owners," said Martz, chairman of the Missouri Liberty Coalition.

City Councilwoman Mary Collette has said the fees are reasonable and noted that most cities in Missouri have had such fees for years.

"All it's doing is paying for the work that's already being done," she said during an earlier interview with the News-Leader.

Clary said he's frustrated because the city didn't allow enough public debate on the fees.

"They never sat down with us -- they never called us," he said.

John Sunny, a manager of Ziggie's Cafe on South National Avenue who spoke in opposition to the fees at a City Council meeting last month, echoed those sentiments.

"They had already made up their minds," he said.

Even if restaurant owners can't change council members' views, they hope to reverse the decision on the fees.

Martz, who encouraged restaurant owners to challenge the new costs, suggested some options.

Educating customers about the issue and encouraging them to sign a petition against the fees is one way. Civil disobedience is another, he said.

"All of you could refuse to pay the fees," Martz said.

A meeting with the health department also might work and seems to be the route restaurant owners first want to take.

Clary said he'd like to have another meeting with more restaurant owners, then try to sit down with the health department and talk about the issue.

He also expressed the need for independent restaurant owners to re-establish the Springfield Restaurant Owners Association and move to keep it active and growing.

Martz encouraged the idea.

"Business owners in this town have got to stick together," he said. "We are getting railroaded."

The Missouri Liberty Coalition reiterated that it would help restaurant owners fight the fees.

"You can beat city council, and we'll help," Martz said.

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