ELYRIA — Elyria restaurant owners and environmental health permit seekers will pay higher fees if Elyria elects to shutter its health department and joins the Lorain County General Health District.
The county agency charges higher fees in some areas, and residents should be aware of the potential impact before City Council members vote on the irreversible measure, said Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward.
Madison provided a list of some restaurant fees that — depending on the size and designation of the establishment — could result in increases of 97 percent to 118 percent from what license and permit holders pay to the city.
Elyria’s food service retail food establishment fees range from $66.07 to $634.30. The county fee total is between $130 and $1,380. Both agencies levy a slew of other fees for permits and licenses for everything from swimming pool inspections to water sampling.
“Not only are we talking about a potential property tax increase on our residents that will be mandatory, but we are also talking about increases to the fees our restaurants will pay for inspections,” he said.
Madison is taking a hard line on efforts by the city administration to close the Elyria City Health District and direct residents to the county by 2017. The move will save the government roughly $700,000 a year. Residents will have to travel farther for public health services and see an increase in property taxes.
Council has debated this issue since March after Mayor Holly Brinda recommended the merger, citing “financial circumstances, combined with mandated accreditation requirements and service delivery changes are rapidly changing the face of public health, and we believe that it is time to begin to deliver these services seamlessly across the county under a common umbrella.”
Lorain, which historically has operated its own health department, voted earlier this year to close and consolidate with the county, and — if Elyria does the same — Avon Lake will join the county agency as well.
But a division of sorts is shaping up among Elyria Council members, who seem to be split on what should happen.
Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large, Councilman Vic Stewart, D-at large, and Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large, believe joining the county health district is the right move for Elyria.
Meanwhile, Madison and Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, are working on a joint Council referral calling for the answers to 13 questions they say should be answered before the elected officials can hand over city services.
“It takes us back to the conversation of why are we rushing this without having all the details worked out and questions answered,” Madison said. “It’s almost like we don’t know our stock and what we are giving up.”
Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell, who runs the county Health District, said Thursday that the county’s fee schedule is set yearly based on the cost to run the programs and the number of permits issued. He said the fees are re-examined annually to determine how much it would cost to employee sanitarians and inspectors against the level of permits and licenses issued.
“Our levy gives us a little bit of breathing room between the cost of program and fees, but is not set up for profit,” he said. “It’s not like we fund other programs this way. Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of what’s collected is paying for the program and the rest comes out of the general fund.”
Covell said the fees will not drop if new service areas are added. Instead, the county Health District is looking to reduce its levy, for which it will seek a renewal in November.
“That’s why we can afford to lower the millage by half and also why we still need sanitarians, public health nurses and people associated with those programs,” he said.
Madison said he is encouraging Council to wait at least a year and turn the city health department’s focus to a Local Government Innovation Fund grant the Elyria heath department sought and received years ago to study the feasibility of merging with the Lorain City Health Department. Elyria still can use the grant with the county as its merger partner.
“Merger may be the best option for the health department in the long term, but short term I don’t think it is,” he said. “I think we need to answer those questions and pave the way for a smooth transition.”