By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Unlicensed businesses are getting a free pass from the city because of limited resources, say Hamilton officials.
Marty Hazell, director of parking and bylaw enforcement, says while the number of businesses that need to be licensed has skyrocketed over the last 13 years, council has refused to add more staff and update the city’s computer system.
“We have had no new licence inspectors since amalgamation,” said Hazell.
He said in 2001 when the six municipalities merged, there were up to 7,000 businesses that had to be licensed annually. This year that number has jumped to 8,500, he said, while there five officers to do the job, the same number employed since amalgamation.
Hazell said because of the limited resources, staff has been focused to get businesses to renew their licences and chasing down current businesses to make sure they have their permits. Those five enforcement employees don’t have the time to seek out businesses that are unlicensed, he said.
But a city audit, said Ann Pekaruk, director of audit services, found there were 684 businesses unlicensed in the city. About half of those businesses were food establishments. Other businesses without a licence included garages, aesthetic services and cigarette and tobacco shops.
The audit also discovered the city was losing money by not enforcing the rules. By cracking down on these unlicensed businesses, Hamilton could recoup about $170,000 every year.
The audit does have a familiar ring to it. In 2007 a scathing internal audit proposed 48 recommendations to city staff to fix the standards and licensing section of the department. The audit found there was a lack of enforcement, no performance reviews for staff, and poor communications. The city brought in Hazell to improve the department.
“We have changed the culture here,” he said, since the 2007 review. “But staff is (concentrating) on keeping existing businesses compliant.”
Members of the audit and administration committee were also surprised to learn that recommendations they had suggested to help various city departments to work cooperately when they license an establishment hasn’t happened.
“People will find it odd (that) city can’t communicate with each other,” said Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark. “This needs to be resolved permanently. We have a significant amount of work to do.”
Glanbrook councillor Brenda Johnson said she has been “frustrated” at the lack of action to crack down on unlicensed businesses in her area. Every time a resident tells her about an unlicensed business, she throws up her hands.
“I tell them ‘I know they are not supposed to be there,’” she said.
Hazell countered hampering the problem is the city’s own computer system is antiquated and needs to be upgraded to allow departments to collaborate with each other, as well as process the high volume of business licenses. He said improving the system and hiring more people would mean “significant” costs to taxpayers.
The committee gave city staff until July to report back to councillors with a plan to improve the licensing enforcement process.
Ward 5 councillor Chad Collins said licensing staff needs to address the unlicensed food establishments since it could be a health and safety issue.
Hazell said staff will check out any food establishments that are unlicensed.