Mark Sadd: To fee or not to fee? (Opinion)

To engage in clairvoyancy in Summersville first requires a municipal license. The application fee is $100. Who knew? Perhaps not even the clairvoyants:

“Next! May I help you, Ma’am?”

“That’s Madam. Madam Mirepoix. I’m a clairvoyant moving into Summersville and need a business license to make me legitimate.”

“That’ll be a hundred dollars. No credit cards or personal checks, please.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. Do you take Diner’s Club?”

“That’s a credit card, Madam.

“Trading stamps?

“Next!”

Why clairvoyants are targeted in Summersville and not practitioners of necromancy and the other dark arts, such as journalism and donut-making, is unclear.

Municipal fee-setting and local taxation themselves can become something like a dark art, if placed into the wrong hands.

In Summersville, a hospital with up to 50 beds pays $20 a year in exchange for a city license and the privilege of taking care of sick people. According to the city’s fee schedule, if a hospital has between 100 and 199 beds, it pays $40 for a city license and, if it has more than 200 beds, $50 a year. The hard thought that went into creating a three-tier fee structure for hospitals is amazing.

Yet, a hospital with 83 beds, it appears, pays nothing unless it falls under the catch-all, “Business Not Specifically Listed Above.” Then it pays $15 a year.

In the law world, that is a major loophole.

The fee pricing and trade classifications in Summersville suggest that the ordinance was written sometime during the Truman administration. A resident department store in Summersville pays $10 a year while the itinerant vendor pays $500 for the privilege of blowing through town. That seems like a pure anti-competition move to me.

Notably, a pool hall pays $25 for its first pool table and $15 for each additional table, while a physical therapist pays $35, a barber pays $10 and a lawyer pays $5. (Gee, I wonder who wrote the municipal fee ordinance in Summersville?)

The city of Charleston has a 24-page handbook for new businesses. Sellers of beer, wine and liquor pay up to $1,250 a year for a city license. For everyone else, the general business license is $20. Landlords must list and describe each apartment or dwelling they own and lease to others for a regulatory rationale that remains unclear to this day. I believe that the information they collect mostly gathers dust.

In New Zealand, it takes 10 minutes to set up a new business, the fastest in the world. How many Kiwis it costs to register in that country I’m not sure.

Licensing a new business or an existing one for the privilege of operating within a city or town is an example of nickel-and-diming private enterprise, a pervasive and stubborn American tradition. Because a municipality can pick a pocket doesn’t mean that it should.

In my world, I would handle things differently:

“Welcome to Markville. Our motto is ‘You’re Not an Easy Mark in Markville.’ How may I help you?”

“I want to start a combination pinball gallery and wine spritzer bar.”

“Fill out this index card: Name, address, phone and email and you’re good to go. Or, better, register on your smartphone.”

“Okay. How much do I owe?”

“Twenty Kiwis.”

“What?”

“Just kidding. Actually, you owe nothing. It’s on us. Here’s our card. Let us know what we can do to help. We’ve got someone on call 24 hours a day.”

“Gosh, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Madam, not even the clairvoyants do.”

Mark Sadd is a Charleston lawyer

and former Daily Mail business editor.

Reach him at msadd@lewisglasser.com

or follow @mark_sadd on Twitter.

Funerals for Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Dotson, Jeffery - 7 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Kees, Nancy - 11 a.m., Salem Road Freewill Baptist Church, Oak Hill.

Payne, Arless - 5 p.m., Taylor-Vandale Funeral Home, Spencer.

Taylor, Connie - 11 a.m., Memory Gardens, Low Gap.

Taylor, Joseph - 11 a.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Williams, Nellie - 1 p.m., Pineview Cemetery, Orgas.

Yates, Ruth - 11:30 a.m., Sunset Memorial Park Mausoleum, South Charleston.