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Town suspends business licensing

Town of Amherstburg Crest

The business licensing fees that have been upsetting local businesses are on hold.

Town council has suspended the fees until public consultation can be held and will refund the money thus far collected, which was estimated by administration to be in the neighbourhood of $12,000-$13,000. A report will also come back to council. That decision came after an impassioned delegation from an Amherstburg business owner, who was supported by other owners and operators in attendance at Monday night's meeting.

Sarah Brush, owner of Speck's Restaurant, said she received a letter from the Town of Amherstburg in mid-February and that she had 15 days to pay a $350 fee. The fee would be $300 in subsequent years, said Brush.

“I am at a loss to understand the necessity of the bylaw,” said Brush.

Brush said she was of the opinion there was no communication from the town as to what was happening and that social media posts were not enough. Notices should have been sent to the business owners.

“Not everyone has social media,” said Brush.

In her case, Brush said in addition to a tax increase of over six per cent on two properties, she pays other annual fees such as $170 to the town for a backflow inspection, $60 to the province, $222.70 to have her fire extinguishers and fire suppression devices checked, and $565 to have her hood/air handling system inspected. That's in addition to inspections from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU).

The COVID-19 pandemic hit restaurants hard, she pointed out, including closures and limited capacities as well as converting to patios and take-out service.

“I pay taxes to the Town of Amherstburg for the services of the Amherstburg Fire Department for the last 53 years to inspect my business,” she said. “It didn't require this licensing fee.”

Brush said conversations with bylaw officials as well as newspaper ads and social media posts indicate businesses should be exempt if they fall under the jurisdiction of other agencies. She thanked other business owners for stepping up and showing support.

Town council unanimously passed the business licensing bylaw last December.

Councillor Diane Pouget confirmed the costs quoted by Brush, stating it was in the neighbourhood of $1,000 per year already.

Councillor Molly Allaire believed administration had good intentions, but it hasn't worked out. She said she heard it was to protect residents and thought she was voting in favour for all the right reasons.

“I was wrong,” said Allaire. “I'm fully happy to say I was wrong.”

Some businesses face multiple licensing fees, she added, and Allaire didn't agree with that.“I don't think it's fair,” she said.

CAO Valerie Critchley said the town has always had a business licensing bylaw, but it was never updated or enforced.

“It was done once,” she said. “We issued a business license once but never checked it again.”

By ensuring the business licenses are up-to-date, it gives businesses the knowledge they are compliant and is a form of risk management for the municipality, she indicated.

The town doesn't have to have a business licensing structure, she added, and that Windsor, Leamington and Kingsville are the others in the area that license businesses. Various ways to compromise were discussed with such organizations as the Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce (ACOC), including the waiving of additional fees, but Critchley indicated administration was open to council's direction.

Critchley said she doubted WECHU has the manpower to inspect businesses annually, drawing comments and moaning from the gallery, but she stuck to her position. She added administration worked to lower the number of categories of businesses requiring licenses.

Councillor Don McArthur said council members have heard “loud and clear” from businesses.

“It's not staff's fault,” said McArthur. “Council needs to own it. Council needs to fix it.”

The motion had “unintended consequences” and suggested open houses and further discussions with the ACOC.

“The question is should Amherstburg have a licensing system?” he asked.

Pouget said she has heard from some businesses that multiple licenses will cost upwards of $1,400 per year. She questioned fire chief Bruce Montone on the role of the fire inspector with Montone stating the role of the fire department is not to certify but to ensure compliance. He said there is no extra fee paid to the fire inspector for his work, and that if there are no violations, businesses are not charged the $101 fee.

Montone said eight of 59 inspections had no violations.

“We're trying to create incentives to keep businesses fire-safe,” he said.

Pouget said fees in Windsor are lower than in Amherstburg and questioned an earlier statement by Critchley that the town is looking for cost recovery. The CAO responded that fees in Windsor have not been reviewed in 11 years.

Councillor Linden Crain made the motion to suspend the bylaw, stating more input is needed. He believed the bylaw “has merit,” but feedback from the business community is needed.

“We should have done this from the beginning,” said Crain.

“We did drop the ball here,” added Councillor Peter Courtney.

Courtney agreed the bylaw has merit, but the costs have to be reviewed.

“It's got to be pulled back and taken a look at,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb said council made the decision and has to fix it, adding he was angry at himself for not insisting on public feedback.

“I'm not going to put this on anyone else but us,” he said.

“Every public body makes mistakes,” added Mayor Michael Prue. “This council is not unique.”

Prue thanked organizations like the ACOC and local businesses “for making a strong case.” He said the issue was maybe done “in haste” but “for all the right reasons.”

“We have hopefully learned from this,” said Prue, hoping money can be justified if any has to be imposed in the future if some are imposed “as a way to protect the people of the town.”

Town suspends business licensing

By Ron Giofu

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