Published January 24. 2013 4:00AM
Stonington - Selectman George Crouse criticized a proposal to increase restaurant inspection fees Wednesday night as unfair for "small mom-and-pop operations" that have few or no seats.
Crouse spoke during the Board of Selectmen public hearing that was attended by just one resident, even though 200 notices were sent out to those who hold restaurant permits in town.
"People who are on the lower end of the seating capacity are going to feel like they got shafted," Crouse said. "Our job is to come up with an equitable solution."
Crouse's complaint centered on a proposal to increase the fees for the town's 87 Class IV restaurants, which are inspected four times a year, to $260.
Currently, the fees for Class IV restaurants, which are the most popular class in town, vary depending on how much seating they offer. Fees are $75 for restaurants with up to 25 seats; $150 for those with seating for 26 to 100 people; and $250 for those with 101 or more seats.
The new proposal eliminates the seating criteria and charges all Class IV restaurants, which cook, prepare and serve hot and cold foods, the same amount.
Town officials said the fees for Class IV restaurants are higher as they require more inspections because their chance of a food-borne illness is greater than a business that serves prepackaged food or just beverages. They said seating does not affect that risk.
Crouse said he heard from the owner of one mom-and-pop restaurant that sells soup and whose current $75 fee would more than triple to $260, which he pointed out is the same amount charged by Ledge Light Health District.
In addition, he said the small operations are facing a much bigger hike than restaurants with more than 101 seats, whose fees would only increase $10.
Last winter, residents and business owners successfully opposed a town proposal to join Ledge Light Health District in an effort to avoid higher fees and retain the town's own health department.
But town officials warned them that keeping the town's own health department would result in higher permit fees to fund the increased work that has to be done.
Town officials, with input from the business community, compiled the proposed fee schedule, which residents will be asked to approve this spring. It would be the first fee increase in a decade, and individual fees would be less than or equal to what Ledge Light charges.
Before the town meeting vote, selectmen agreed to find out how many restaurants are "mom-and-pop" establishments, as Crouse described them, and take another look at the Class IV fees based on his comments.
Crouse added that if the fees are to be increased for small-scale operations, they should be increased gradually.