Plumbers Battle City Hall Over New Fees

MY HOMETOWN OF York, Pa., is short on cash, but its getting long on weird ways in which to stave off bankruptcy. Some of the ideas are creative and just offbeat enough to garner the publics support. Last year, Mayor John Brenner initiated a 332 fund based upon the cost of a McDonalds Happy Meal. His thinking was that if everyone in York County gave the city of York just $3.32, the budget could be

MY HOMETOWN OF York, Pa., is short on cash, but it’s getting long on weird ways in which to stave off bankruptcy. Some of the ideas are creative and just offbeat enough to garner the public’s support.

Last year, Mayor John Brenner initiated a “332 fund” based upon the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. His thinking was that if everyone in York County gave the city of York just $3.32, the budget could be balanced and remain in the black. After all, his reasoning went, just about everyone in York County receives benefits from the city of York by utilizing its services, and that we citizens support those programs via the taxes city businesses and residents pay.

Lots of people gave freely, and businesses too, including many who already pay taxes to the city. My company, F.W. Behler, gave too — both as a business and personally — to the tune of several hundred dollars.

The 332 campaign drew lots of attention, including the national media. Just about everyone had a chuckle or two when discussing its merits. More than $100,000 was raised during the first year!

That was then — this is now. This year, the city’s $67 million budget once again is running in the red. The 332 fund, while still alive, has lost its newness and the contributions have slowed. In its place, a number of peculiar fund-raising efforts have sprung up. We city-licensed plumbing contractors saw the first salvo when our license fees were doubled.

Now, I should stop here for a moment to tell you that plumbing contractors are the only licensed trade within the city of York. That’s right —no other trades are licensed and, therefore, they aren’t tested or regulated.

You want to be a builder, remodeler, electrician, heating and air conditioning contractor — no problem, no license, no regulations — and, worse yet, no real code compliance unless you voluntarily picked up a permit.

No worries though, because there hasn’t been any enforcement or prosecution of those who choose to work outside the rules, and that includes all the unlicensed, untrained, unprofessional individuals who choose to do plumbing work sans permit.

Needless to say, that kind of irritated all of us who do play by the rules and especially those of us who pay for all the licenses within our firms. Between the city of York and all the surrounding municipalities, we shell out several thousand dollars each year in license fees.

The very next day after doubling our license fees, the city initiated what came to be known as a “candle fee,” which hit all restaurants, churches and nonprofit groups that wanted to have lighted candles. Pay either $2.50 per candle or an annual fee of $150. So, in theory, if I took my parents to a restaurant within city limits and chose to celebrate their collective birthdays, lighting the candles on their cake was going to require a small loan!

On the heels of that strange edict, I bumped into one of the York city fire chiefs who asked how I liked the new torch fee. What torch fee? It seems that a fee of $100 was enacted for the act of lighting a torch to solder! Say what? I thought he was yanking my chain as a joke, but it turned out he wasn’t kidding.

Next were new inspection fees of $50 each to observe our cleaning a grease trap and, for those of us certified to do so, the testing of backflow prevention devices. The per-fixture charge jumped from $4 to $20.

Top that off with a change in how plumbing inspections are to be billed, which went from a fixed fee of $30 to an hourly charge of $60 with $30 minimum per visit! Great, now that inspections have become an open-ended charge that creates a situation ripe for abuse if a plumbing inspector should decide he didn’t like someone — not that that’s ever happened anywhere. We licensed plumbing contractors were getting mighty hot under the collar.

The churches, nonprofits and restaurateurs came down on the city officials like the proverbial ton of bricks! They’d picked on the wrong groups, to be sure, and the public’s outcry was quick to follow. Imagine the candle police busting the midnight church service on Christmas Eve and you’ve got the picture. I’ve seen some mighty fancy back peddling in my lifetime, but the politicos were churning the water in an effort to dodge the angry horde.

There’s strength in numbers and what’s good for the candle crowd should be good for licensed professionals too, or so we thought. A group of angry plumbers descended on York City Council and we expressed our outrage at being singled out for this onerous torch permit fee.

If we were to be charged, what about all the other trades that utilize torches in the course of performing work? There are garages that cut, weld and solder; jewelers and painters who use torches to remove paint; air conditioning contractors who braze; heating contractors who solder; and flooring contractors who use heat to remove vinyl.

The fire chief readily admitted we licensed plumbers had been the only group singled out to pay this fee because we are the only group that is registered with the city. As Steve Sipe, a city-licensed and registered Master Plumber, pointed out, “You don’t whip the horse that’s pulling the hardest.”

I’m just getting started and will have more next month.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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