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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Madison restaurant owner on license fee: 'I knew I was going to get screwed'

When John Roussos, owner of New Orleans Take-Out, renewed his restaurant license this summer, he got an unpleasant surprise. The annual fee, previously $382, was now more than $700.

"I work long, hard hours to keep my business open," he complains. "What am I getting for [an extra] $340?"

The fees increased after Dane County and the city of Madison merged their health departments this year. Roussos, whose restaurant is in the town of Madison, used to get a license from the county, which charged every restaurant a flat fee. The new Public Health Department adopted Madison's method of charging fees based mostly on revenue.

"There's now one standard set of services and fees applied universally over all of Dane County," says department head Dr. Thomas Schlenker. "It's a natural outcome of the merger."

Roussos' restaurant falls into one of the higher revenue categories: $250,000 to $1 million. "I can see a million-dollar restaurant paying $700," he says. "But a $250,000 restaurant is barely in business. Should somebody making four times as much pay the same?"

Schlenker agrees the categories are probably too broad and could be split. "We wouldn't be against it."

The fee hike is expected to bring in about $150,000, which will be used to hire another inspector and give all inspectors computerized tablets, improving efficiency.

"We are providing more and better service," says Schlenker, adding that Dane County did not inspect establishments as rigorously as Madison did. City inspectors, for example, would test the safety of soft-serve ice cream, which can easily be contaminated. "That was not done outside the city of Madison anywhere in Dane County," he says. "People assume if they had an ice cream cone there would be the same safety standards."

Roussos mocks the department for claiming the merger is more cost-effective. "If they're saving money, then by that logic my fee should have gone down," he says. "I was really concerned when I heard they were going to merge - I knew I was going to get screwed."

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