License Late Fees Put County, Businesses At Odds

OCEAN CITY — Local
business owner Cindy DiNicolas says she was “held hostage” at the Worcester
County Health Department until she paid a $500 late fee for her annual business
license. The Health Department simply said that she needed to pay more
attention to the due date next time.

On March 26, just days
before DiNicolas and her husband Anthony were set to re-open their uptown café,
Brianna’s Bananas on 118th Street for the season, she says she went
to Snow Hill prepared to write the normal $300 for her annual business license.

When she arrived,
however, she was informed that she was being slapped with the maximum $500 fine
($50 per day) for being 10 days late in payment.

In 2009, Brianna’s
Bananas Café was granted its first business license on March 19, thus making

the same date the following year the date for renewal.  Although DiNicolas says that the county had

sent a letter in October stating to remember to renew their license in March,
she said she simply “put it off to the side as we were preparing to close for
the season.”

“We weren’t even open,
as we’ve been closed all winter so it’s not like I broke some terrible law on
purpose or tried to operate without a business license,” said DiNicolas. “The
big problem I had was that they refused to waver on this ruling and there’s no
appeal process. I was literally shaking down there, and if I didn’t pay it, we
couldn’t open our business for the season. It was like being held hostage.”

Each year, the Worcester
County Health Department estimates that only a mere handful of the more than
1,200 licensed businesses are slapped with the maximum $500 fine, and their
policy for years has not been allowing any sort of appeal, according to Environmental
Health Director Ed Potez.

The County Commissioners
had voted to raise the cost for a business license in 2005 from $150 to $300.

Still, DiNicolas
realizes that the oversight or perhaps the “first year” mistake that she made
has proved to be costly to the tune of $800 just to open their doors this
season, but she says she and her husband were most upset by the way they claim
they were treated in Snow Hill and the fact that they had no way to contest the
ruling.

“When I started arguing
about the charge and telling Mr. Potez that he should be ashamed of himself for
taking advantage of small businesses he started patronizing me and just kept
repeating, ‘$50 a day, $50 dollars a day’”, said DiNicolas, “so I wrote on the
check, ‘this is larceny.’”

Potez didn’t return
phone calls this week but his reputation as a straight shooter and a vehement
upholder of department rules and regulations precedes him and is perhaps
similar to the department’s stance on not allowing appeals for late fees.

“You are going to have a
hard time finding a guy that follows the precise letters of law closer than Ed
Potez,” said Ocean City Council President Joe Mitrecic. “He’s as ‘by the book’
as it gets.”

In the state of
Maryland, late fees for commercial law state that late fees do not go into
effect until after 15 days and are then only 10 percent of whatever the total
amount of the charge is. However, the Health Department operates under its own
statutes.

DiNicolas contests that
if that were to be the case the fine would be 10 percent of $300 or $30, not
$500.

In 2008, the County
Commissioners passed a resolution that set the $50 a day late fee, and the $500
maximum penalty into effect in order to reduce the amount of businesses that
were neglecting to pay their annual fees.

“Look, we made a mistake
and we have no problem paying some sort of a late fee, but $500 is just way too
much,” said DiNicolas. “I can’t believe that the County Commissioners would
pass something like this onto the businesses who are trying to make it in this
area.  I feel as though I’ve been
victimized.”

 

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