By Terry Rogers
On Monday, January 9, Milford City Council voted against implementing a $120 per year business license for brick-and-mortar businesses within city limits. The implementation of a business license was discussed at meetings of the Community Affairs Committee and at a previous City Council public hearing. At the public hearing many businesses spoke out against the requirement of a license. However, when the proposal was presented to City Council to adopt or deny in December, Councilmen Archie Campbell and Chris Mergner both expressed that they felt the license was necessary. After discussions with David Rutt, City Solicitor and City Manager, Eric Norenberg, the ordinance was presented to council again for discussion.
“I have done some research and, although I don’t know what year it was, it seems we implemented a $50 per unit rental license that also included a business license,” Councilman Campbell said. “I think we should have a business license in Milford. I only recommend it for brick-and-mortar businesses, not someone selling Avon or someone whose business is in Seaford and does business in Milford. It would be brick and mortar businesses in city limits only. I think the city needs it and I’d like to hear why other members of Council do not.”
Councilman Katrina Wilson stated that there was a fee implemented for landlords, but that she did not recall a business license included in that fee.
Councilwoman Lisa Ingram Peel said that there had been several meetings with people speaking out against the license and no one in favor. She felt that since she represented those people, she did not feel she could approve the measure. Councilwoman Peel also said that she did not feel implementing the license would solve the problem they hoped it would solve and that was code enforcement in the City.
“We implemented that rental license several years ago,” Councilman Owen Brooks said. “When it was implemented, we told people that the money would be used to hire an additional code officer. Years later, we didn’t hire anyone, but we kept taking the people’s money.”
Councilman Campbell said that his research indicated that someone was hired, but let go six weeks later. Campbell said that since he has moved to Milford, it has grown significantly. He said that there were now more than 10,000 people in the City and that it was being covered by one-and-a-half code enforcers, making it impossible to keep buildings up to code. He commented that Bayhealth was spending $300 million on a new hospital, but when people like doctors and educators rode around Milford, the state of some of the buildings could encourage them to live elsewhere.
“A lot of work has been done on this and it covers a lot,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “My personal opinion, this only affects businesses located in city limits and it would allow us to have some accountability. It would eliminate fly-by-night, pop-up businesses, allowing the city to know what is operating in its limits. This compared us to other cities and I see that we are in line with what they are doing. Like all of our ordinances, this is not a money-making ordinance as it may help us hire additional code enforcers, but it will not pay their entire salary.”
Councilman Jamie Burk said that although he agreed with Councilman Campbell that there needed to be better code enforcement in the city, he did not believe the business license was the right way to go. He said that several public workshops and hearings had been held and that no one who attended was in favor of implementing the license. He said he agreed that the City could improve code enforcement, but did not feel a business license was the answer, pointing out that many of the people opposed lived and had businesses in his ward. He said that they were the ones who supported non-profits, quickly saying yes when asked for donations for fund raisers, so it was unfair to put this burden on them.
“I have been on council for 20 plus years,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “Although I represent the Fourth Ward, I actually represent the whole city. I don’t make decisions based on my ward, but on what is best for the city. You cannot base your decision on one group of people. Two or three do not make the body of Milford. When we passed the rental license, this was a packed house and there was no one here in agreement with the ordinance. We listened, we reviewed the facts and we told those people that while we appreciated their concerns, for the good of Milford we had to do this.”
Mayor Bryan Shupe pointed out that the city had taken rental license fees and promised another code enforcer who had not been hired. He said that it seemed as if council was now asking for more money to do what they promised a few years ago with money they were already collecting.
Mr. Norenberg explained that payment for code enforcers came from the General Fund while rental fees were placed in the General Fund as revenue. Should council pass the business license, those fees would also be placed in the General Fund for expenses, but would not specifically be earmarked for a code enforcer, just as the rental fees collected now were not specifically earmarked. He said that the city did have businesses opening in Milford who were not following ordinances properly.
“We have had businesses open here in areas they are not zoned for or conducting business not permitted in the building they have chosen,” Mr. Norenberg said. “This can lead to additional expenses a business may not be expecting. We’ve had at least two or three in the past year who have had to make special requests of Planning and Zoning or Board of Adjustments because they were unaware of zoning requirements. The business license would eliminate those problems.”
Councilman Burk said that he felt there needed to be better code enforcement in Milford, but that he did not feel it was appropriate to put that responsibility on the backs of the business owners. Councilman Campbell said that it amounted to only $10 per month, something most of those opposed to the license could easily afford.
After a motion to pass the ordinance, council voted four to two against passing the business license regulation with Councilman Campbell and Councilwoman Wilson casting the only yes votes.
“I feel that the legwork has been done on this and I feel it is needed,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “I think this would create accountability that we need.”
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