The Douglas County Health Department threatened 165 bars and restaurants: Pay up or we'll shut you down.
That message, issued through a press release Monday morning, had business owners lined up at department offices to renew their expired annual operating permits — and to pay $100 late fees. And it had some operators complaining about what they said were unfair, heavy-handed tactics.
"There are other ways to get businesses to pay for (permits) other than to release a press release," said Brad Marr, owner of Benson restaurant Lot 2.
Some businesses disputed that they belonged on the list of what the health department called "delinquent" businesses, saying they already had paid for a 2016 permit.
"We don't know what's going on," said Becky App, an owner of eCreamery at 50th Street and Underwood Avenue. "We have a cashed check from the fee for having our permit renewed."
She said she thought it was a paperwork problem that could be straightened out.
Both of Chris Janicek's businesses — Cupcake Omaha in the Old Market and Chris Janicek's Cake Box in Dundee — were on the list. Janicek said he paid for his permits with a check mailed Dec. 30, and was then billed for a late fee, which he said he paid with a check mailed Jan. 31 that has been cashed.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "This agency has run amok."
The list of businesses was dated Dec. 5. Tim Kelso, chief of administration and finance at the department, said it's possible a check could have been cashed last week at the County Treasurer's Office and the health department's records would not have been updated immediately.
He said the department was renewing permits Monday for businesses that showed proof of a canceled check.
Several business owners said they were concerned customers would interpret the threat of closure to mean that the businesses hadn't passed a health inspection.
"It just makes us look bad," said Kelly Hurley, operator of JD's Circle Inn. She said the only food the bar serves is chips and frozen pizzas.
"It's not that we're filthy — I don't even have a kitchen."
Hurley said she runs the business for her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. She said she didn't realize she owed the fee, and that the bill might have been misplaced.
"I'll pay you if I owe you," she said Monday after visiting the health department to renew.
The department defended its push, saying some businesses fail to pay every year, and pointed out that more than 2,100 businesses renewed their permits on time.
Notices were sent to businesses on Nov. 9, with a message that the bills were due in 30 days, or on Dec. 9. The 2015 permits expired Dec. 31. A reminder letter was sent on Jan. 15, 2016.
That Dec. 9 deadline was earlier than in previous years, Kelso said. Previously, the deadline was Dec. 31.
"We wanted folks to have plenty of notice, so instead we sent them (the bills) out Nov. 9," he said. He also said it was a good time to make a switch, because the person who previously handled billing recently retired.
Still, the department gave businesses until Dec. 31 to pay.
"We internally decided to allow a grace period" and accept payments through Dec. 31, the department wrote in late-fee notices dated Jan. 15.
But Janicek said the change in deadline meant a change in his routine; he previously paid the bill every January, taking advantage of a grace period into January. With fees totaling more than $1,000, the extra time was valuable.
That money is valuable for the health department, too; it directly funds the cost of food and safety inspections. The inspectors' salaries, the clerical staff and supervisor all are paid from the permit fees, Kelso said.
Adi Pour, the county's health director, said the businesses are aware of the law.
"It is their unlawful operating without a permit that will cause their closing," she said in a statement. "It is part of the cost of doing business, and operators know they must have a permit."
Permit costs range from $89 to $489, Kelso said. Some businesses require multiple permits, depending on their operations.
Operating without a permit is a misdemeanor. Violators are subject to a fine, and possibly even jail time, for each offense. Each day of operating without a permit is considered a separate offense. That means restaurant owners could face more than 30 charges of violating the ordinance, Kelso said.
But it's rare for businesses to face such harsh penalties, said Tom Mumgaard, interim city prosecutor.
"Have we ever enforced that? I wouldn't be surprised, but I can't tell you that it has," he said.
In the most extreme cases, Kelso said, businesses that don't renew are closed down for a few days.
Once the health department closes a restaurant it must pay a $200 reopening fee, which covers a special inspection. The restaurants cannot legally serve food while awaiting the inspection.
"It can be rather costly," Kelso said.
The county said Monday the delinquent businesses will be closed and citations will be issued as soon as the health department can coordinate scheduling with the Omaha Police Department.
David Kerr, owner of the Tavern in the Old Market, said the fallout from showing up on the list has been significant. Many mistakenly believe the list indicates a food safety violation, he said, rather than a simple bookkeeping mistake.
"My phone hasn't stopped the entire day," he said. "From customers, from staff."
He said the health department didn't have to resort to public shaming as a way to get businesses to pay. His bill was a few hundred dollars, he said, and he gladly would have paid if someone had called him.
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