Rocco Biale got a surprise in the mail recently. The county health permit invoice for his Walnut Creek restaurant, Rocco's Ristorante Pizzeria, was $1,813 -- nearly twice as much as the year before.
"I wondered if it was a typographical error," he said. "I went back and looked up last year's bill: It was $957."
Chris Frumenti, owner of Mangia Ristorante Pizzeria in Lafayette, got similar news, his fee jumping from $800 to $1,648. "No warning," he said. "I opened the bill. I'm flabbergasted."
The Contra Costa Environmental Health division didn't stop at pizza joints. Zack Scott, who owns Walnut Creek eatery Havana, said his fees also doubled.
"There was a letter attached saying costs had gone up and they're passing them on to us," he said. "Everybody I've talked to thinks this is crazy."
There's a reason the independent Tax Foundation ranks California among the least business-friendly states in the nation -- only New York and New Jersey rank lower -- but what troubled the restaurateurs as much as the added expense was the stun-gun fashion in which they were informed.
"We were blindsided," Biale said. "There are increased costs we deal with every day, whether it's food or labor or utilities, but to all of a sudden, with no warning, learn that fees have doubled by a 5-0 vote of the board of supervisors?"
It turns out there's a rational explanation -- an explanation, anyway -- for why Environmental Health Director Marilyn Underwood asked the board to increase fees.
Since taking her post three years ago, one of her directives has been to get the department's books in order -- it previously operated at an annual deficit of some $750,000. She also must comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recently updated food code calling for more thorough inspections. According to provisions of California's Proposition 26, her agency can charge fees equal to the reasonable cost of enforcement administration.
See, it's all so simple.
"This division doesn't get any general fund money," Underwood said, "so its survival falls to fees. I had to figure out how much time my inspectors were spending on these facilities. If we spend more time, I have to charge more. A larger restaurant has a larger kitchen, and that makes a difference in the time it takes."
Plus, the unwritten rule of government work is never to find a cheaper way to do things if you can get more money.
The good news for restaurant patrons is more inspections are now required of higher-risk facilities -- where raw meat and fish are prepared -- and there's added emphasis on preventing food-borne illnesses. That especially applies to the cleanliness and health of food handlers. "Allowing sick employees to work is one of the biggest reasons we've had food-borne illnesses in Contra Costa County," Underwood said.
The not-so-good side of this whole episode is that the county did a lousy job of announcing its intentions and inviting feedback from those affected.
Said Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, "I pointedly asked Marilyn Underwood if she'd been proactive in reaching out to the public. I'm not happy the way it was handled -- not explaining what's going on and the reason the fees are going up."
Underwood, who also oversees health safety with swimming pools, septic systems and other concerns, said she expects to ask the board for other fee hikes.
A suggestion: Let the public know beforehand. Fee payers hate surprises.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.