Eau Claire (WQOW) - Some local restaurant owners are wondering how they'll keep putting meals on the table while covering increased fees.
Some said they're anticipating more than a double increase in their restaurant license fees in 2017 after a proposal was recently adopted by the Eau Claire City-County Board of Health. Others are left wondering why the current fees are increasing and how their businesses might be impacted.
"I'm afraid that our food, there's limited places to eat really good quality food," Lisa Aspenson, the owner of Mona Lisa's on Water Street told News 18. "This can only deter this from happening."
Mona Lisa's has been bringing flavor and flair from the farm to the table for the past 22 years. But, a new plan could put what's on her plates on the chopping block.
On November 9th, the Board of Health approved fee increases for the health department's Restaurant Licensing Program. Under the adopted proposal, license fees will be based on a restaurant's yearly sales, plus the complexity of a restaurant. That means a health inspector will review how a business prepares and stores food, to determine its risk assessment. Health staff said there are about seven inspectors, who are employed through the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
"Being categorized as a high complexity restaurant, our fees doubling in one year is really extraordinary," Aspenson said.
"Fees would be based on the number of check-offs out of those 11 items (on the state's HealthSpace assessment tool)," the Director of the EC City-County Health Dept., Lieske Giese said. "It does involve things like a salad bar. They do include 'was this facility involved in a food borne outbreak last year? Was this facility a facility that an inspector had to come back because of a violation?'"
In Eau Claire County, there are more than 370 licensed restaurants. Health staff said the 2017 fee plan would label about 50 eateries as 'high complexity' and their permit price could go up by about $1,000. On the other side, they said more than 80 restaurants would be considered 'low complexity' so they should see their fees drop by at least $100.
"The fee changes this year that the Board of Health approved are really based on matching how much time and effort we spend at facilities and how much risk at that facility for a food borne outbreak with what the cost of the fee is," Giese said. "In the past, the fee was based on sales which didn't match how risky and how much there could be a food borne outbreak at that facility."
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association said an increase of this size is unheard of in the state and questions why the increase is being charged all at once, as opposed to over a period of time. "Most health departments phase those type of drastic increases over a five to seven year period," said Susan Quam, the executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
Anne Doede, the district manager of Melts and Cheese in Oakwood Mall in Eau Claire, said preparing and serving fresh products and produce should not count against you. "For places that are trying to offer quality services, fresh processed foods," Doede said. "Of course, there could be more risk in preparing those items. But, if one has proven to them to be responsible and well-run and sanitary that should be factored in as well."
Health staff said restaurant owners will be responsible for 70 percent of the inspection costs with the remaining 30 percent being paid by tax payers. In 2016, restaurant owners paid 55 percent and tax payers paid 45 percent. In other counties, like Dane and Milwaukee County, owners pay 100 percent of the inspection costs, but their fees aren't as high as Eau Claire's will be.
Quam said she plans to send a letter to the Eau Claire City-County Board of Health. She said she is writing to have the board reconsider the concerns and questions that she, and others have about the fees. Health staff said the new fees taken into effect January 1, 2017 for restaurants that have a license renewal in July or new businesses starting out in the beginning of the year.