Pinnacle editorial: Health inspection fee hike spells hypocrisy

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The farmers' market is shown on Fifth Street. This year, it will move to San Benito Street.

The recent revelation that the county has gradually spiked health inspection fees for booths at the farmers market is a stark reminder of hypocrisy in local government. While legally abiding businesses have played by the rules and forked over more of their money year after year – supposedly to offset inspection costs and keep the public safe – authorities have ignored enforcement of illegal street vendors.

At a time when local governments should offer incentives for small businesses to sell their goods here, the county’s health department is in the last year of a five-year schedule to incrementally hike the levies charged to prospective farmers market booths. This year’s fee of $402 is up from $358 last year and nearly double the fee from four years ago.

The farmers market in recent years has been one of the few bright spots for the local economy and efforts by local business interests – the Hollister Downtown Association runs the weekly gathering that features more than 70 booths – to help boost the economy and encourage foot traffic in retail districts.

So the answer from the county health department was to jack up the cost of doing business in the form of higher fees – with the shortsighted reasoning that government coffers, and financial security of staff employees, will get a slight bump from the additional revenue.

It is the old way of doing business – you know, when times were good and money was flush – and runs in direct contrast to the logical economic standpoint that government officials must remove barriers for commerce to enable long-term growth, a concept staff and elected officials have emphasized time and again, and a concept supervisors themselves have employed in other areas such as their move to slash traffic impact fees for developers. Why patronize one segment of commerce and alienate another? Other than the fact that major developers paying traffic fees have more money and political clout with government officials, there is no logical, alternative answer.

Equally puzzling as the business outlook, however, is the message sent to above-board businesses and residents by ignoring illegal street vendors who pay no fees to do business like others do and whose products go without inspection, leaving consumers more susceptible to health dangers. The same county hammered by the E. coli outbreak in 2006 somehow allows rogue merchants of produce and other cheap goods to sell potentially tarnished products on the street, oftentimes to children.

You simply can’t claim on one end that health is a priority – as reasoning for inspections at the farmers market and other venues locally – and choose to enforce only certain vendors while leaving others free to do as they please. You simply can’t claim the farmers market fees justify the cost of doing business when the county is failing to even follow its own regulations and enforce those who aren’t following the law.

Certainly it is true that many of the unauthorized vendors selling goods on the street are just trying to make a buck and get by. What the county has failed to recognize is that the legal businesses at the market are doing just the same – and paying the extra price for operating on the up and up.

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