County Ups Health Fees, Lowers Late Fines

SNOW HILL — As of next year, several fees for food service and pool permits will by rising in Worcester County, while late fines will be going down.

The County Commissioners spent more than an hour Tuesday discussing possible changes to the Worcester County Health Department (WCHD), specifically whether the agency’s late application penalties were too steep.

“I don’t think 167 percent [fine] is fair,” said Commission President Bud Church, referring to the fact that a $300 food service license could accrue up to $500 in late fees. “That’s ridiculous.”

The rest of the commission was split on the issue. While most admitted that a $500 late fee was high, it was also noted the fine didn’t come all at once. Instead, for every day that a food service or pool application is late, the license holder is fined $50. The penalty caps after 10 days at $500.

“I know people look at it like it’s a punishment,” said WCHD Health Officer Debbie Goeller.

Goeller explained to the commission the steep fines weren’t so much a penalty as a deterrent. Few business owners ever reached the $500 maximum late fee. But having the phantom of it floating around was enough to convince most license holders not to procrastinate, according to Goeller. Statistics she provided the commission back up her argument. In 2003, there were 55 late applications turned in to the WCHD with the number rising to 59 in 2004.

However, in 2005 the current $50 per day/$500 maximum late fee was implemented. In 2010, late applications had fallen to 39, with only 23 of those incurring the entire $500 penalty.

Even with fewer late applications, Goeller stressed that her agency was already overworked and understaffed.

“We’re so overloaded right now we could just physically not get the work done,” she remarked, adding that Worcester had a huge number of facilities that need to be inspected before a food service or pool permit can be used, but a relatively low number of inspectors.

In Goeller’s opinion, lowering late fees might encourage some license owners to be procrastinate and file their paperwork after it was due because they don’t fear late fees. She warned that if enough people took advantage of the system, it could generate a backlog of inspections and reviews for her already harried agency.

Commissioner Judy Boggs agreed that food service and pool permit holders needed to be aware that it was crucial to have all applications and paperwork in by the due date.

“We need to educate them that this needs to be paid,” she said.

Boggs supported keeping the $500 maximum fine as a deterrent to tardiness.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley suggested giving license holders additional notification before their applications need to be renewed. He recommended sending the first notification 45 to 60 days before renewal is due. If the application is not filed soon after, a follow-up certified letter, which must be signed by the recipient, is then sent. The cost of sending the letter would then be added to the license holder’s bill, though the amount would likely only be another $10 or so.

“If you get a certified letter and you don’t answer, that’s your stupidity,” Shockley said.

With two notifications in place, Shockley admitted that he’d feel a lot less guilty about keeping the heavy late fees, since more than adequate opportunities were given to license holders.

Church still had qualms about penalizing businesses with late fees that cost more than one and a half times their operating license.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “There’s no wriggle room.”

Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw compared the late fees to a speeding ticket and noted that the penalty was there for a reason and kept businesses from taking advantage of the system. But Church argued that a speeding ticket could be appealed, the late fines could not.

The debate went back and forth, with no clear resolution evident.

Though not a public hearing, the commission decided to allow Frontier Town owner Mitch Parker, who holds both a food service license and a license for pool operation, to weigh in on the issue.

“Yes, I think paying more than the cost of the fee [in fines] is outrageous,” he said.

Parker added that license holders did have an “intent to pay these fees,” but sometimes issues arose and applications were forgotten or lost in the shuffle. He strongly agreed with Shockley’s suggestion a certified letter should be sent after the original notification, though he asked that it be sent 15 days before the due date.

The commission accepted the double notification proposal, the second of which being a certified letter.

Commissioner Madison Bunting made a motion that fines remain at $50 per day, but that the cap be set at six days instead of 10, making the maximum late fee $300. However, special events which require extra planning, permitting, and inspection would still have the original $500 cap. The motion passed.

Finally, to offset some of the revenue that would be lost from lower fines, the commission decided to raise permit fees in several categories, all by 10 percent. Food service facility re-inspection fees will rise from $100 to $110, re-opening fees from $200 to $220; and year-round pool permits will increase from $400 to $440, among others.

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