WILSON, N.C. — In tight budget times, "tax," as in tax increase, is not a nice word. So, that is when another three-letter word -- "fee" -- gets plenty of lip service.
The latest fee discussion could mean restaurants may have to pay more for the sanitation score on the wall. Some restaurant owners call it an unfair tax.
Lee Ellis said every penny counts at his barbecue restaurant.
"If you don't get things paid, there is nothing to fall back on," Ellis said.
If the state legislature approves a new proposal, Ellis could end up with another expense on his plate.
Right now, restaurants pay the state a $50 annual sanitation inspection fee. But a task force, appointed to study and improve the state's public health system, reccomends letting county health departments charge a fee for each inspection.
"There is enough expense involved in keeping things up and keeping the inspectors happy with what you do, that I don't really feel like there should be an extra expense," Ellis said.
North Carolina Restaurant Association
also opposes any new inspection fees. But some county health directors say the fees could help local budgets.
"The fee that's being proposed will basically offset the county's cost," said Dr. Louis Latour, of the Wilson County Health Department.
Inspectors try to check every restaurant at least four times a year, more when poor sanitation requires re-inspections. The state pays Wilson County about $8,000 a year for inspections but spends nearly $220,000 a year.
"It would free up more money for the county to do other things," Latour said.
Restaurant owners like Ellis hope that before any decision is made, lawmakers also will consider the businessman's budget.
The public health task force plans to submit its improvement plan, including new inspection fees, to the state legislature next month.