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Business owners question health permit discount 

San Luis Obispo County is offering a discount to some businesses that are required to pay an annual health permit fee in an effort to help ease the financial strains of the pandemic, but some local business owners say its not enough.

click to enlarge RESTRICTED CAPACITY Restaurants in SLO County haven't been able to operate at full capacity since March 2020 due to COVID-19 safety restrictions. - FILE PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • File Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • RESTRICTED CAPACITY Restaurants in SLO County haven't been able to operate at full capacity since March 2020 due to COVID-19 safety restrictions.

At a meeting on Dec. 15, 2020, the SLO County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the temporary reduction of certain health permit fees for 2021 by between 25 and 50 percent. It also extends the pay period for those fees by about three months and prorates fees for businesses that closed in response to COVID-19.

In November 2020, the board directed staff to develop such discounts to offer reprieve to businesses like bars, restaurants, and body art facilities that are required to pay health permit fees—the costs of which are in part determined by the scale of a business's operations—but haven't been able to operate at full capacity, if at all, since mid-March 2020.

"I just want to thank the staff for bringing this back," 1st District Supervisor John Peschong said at the Dec. 15 meeting. "This is something that a number of constituents in my district have asked about."

State law requires business facilities to obtain health permits, and those businesses pay health permit fees to the SLO County Environmental Health Department each year that go toward covering the cost of mandated health inspections, according to Environmental Health Accountant Allen Work. The cost of the annual fee, he said, is based in part on a county fee schedule that, for restaurants, includes seating capacity as a factor. Restaurants with more capacity have higher bills.

The Dec. 15 board vote authorized Environmental Health to give bars, restaurants, swimming pools, and some other retail food businesses a 25 percent discount on their annual health permit fees, according to a county staff report, and body art shops received a 50 percent reduction to their bills. That, according to the staff report, will likely result in an estimated $255,398 hit to the county's general fund.

But to Phil Silver, owner of the Pi Whole Pizzeria in Nipomo, the discounts as they stand aren't adding up.

Silver said restaurants get bills from Environmental Health toward the end of each year, and the cost of the bill is partly based on the seating capacity of the restaurant. With the capacity to hold 51 or more people in his pizzeria, Silver said his bill is usually more than $700 each year.

But between March and May of 2020, restaurants weren't allowed to offer indoor dining. Although those restrictions eased slightly in June, indoor seating was still greatly limited and the allowance was short lived. Now, as COVID-19 cases surge in California, SLO County restaurants aren't even able to offer outdoor dining services. Though body art facilities received an even larger cut to their health permit bills this year, many of those businesses weren't able to operate at all for nearly six months.

"So is this just like a perfect example of bad math?" Silver asked.

If the county really wants to save local businesses, Silver said, the discounts should run parallel to the capacity businesses have been able to operate at throughout the pandemic. Somewhere closer to 75 percent off, he said.

"I'm thinking, 'What about the people on the edge?' he said, later adding, "It's too little of a discount based on the circumstances." Δ

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