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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Fee’d me

The older I get, the deeper into the wonderful world of permits and fees I travel. Those of us who are undergrads may not have much experience with such endless pecuniary encounters, but believe me, you will.

Through an unexpected windfall for the family, I became a homeowner in Davis a couple years ago, with a fairly small place that needed (and still needs) some work. I was and remain very grateful for the upgrade in life, but it made me have to be, like, an adult. Or at least convincingly pretend to be one.

So when we moved in, my wife’s family, being very aware of what people are capable of even in such a nice town as Davis, had us install a residential alarm. Unfortunately, this installation came not only with the startup fees and monthly expense of the alarm company but a one-time non-refundable non-interchangeable alarm fee of $25 to the city of Davis.

We made upgrades to the electricity and plumbing. (Really, who has a bathtub without a shower?) More fees and permits from our municipality, plus inspections to make sure we are in compliance with all state and local regulations – about another $125. Some of the work we had done, such as a replacement of an entire electrical panel, did merit the inevitable visit from an always-pleasant city worker.

But some other inspections? Not so much, in the words of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. A short while ago we had a ceiling fan installed, which of course required a wire for a source of energy. But due to the outrageous deception of the “five-minute ceiling fan” we ended up calling an electrician, who followed the rules and notified the city for a permit.

A quick perusal of city codes will tell you that a ceiling fan falls under the extensive category of “common electrical improvements that require permits when installed or replaced.”

Undoubtedly, some people neglect to use an electrician and end up installing the fan themselves, without ever notifying the city. This of course has caused an epidemic of deaths from electrocutions and falling ceiling fans. If only people listened and followed the rules, over 70 million Americans would still be alive. That’s only the 2009 numbers too, the last year for which faulty ceiling fan deaths are available.

Curious for more information on the system of fees and paperwork we’ve permitted ourselves to build up (ha ha, get it?), I called around the city and spoke with half a dozen people from multiple departments. “Why the fee?” I asked. “Does the city make money off of it?”

Virtually everyone was very friendly and seemed willing to help, but the answers were not easy to come by. Mostly I was put through various phone trees and voicemails, and more than once I heard “I know the perfect person for you to talk to,” but without resulting perfection at the next stop on my tour.

For example, on the issue of the alarm fee, the police department referred me to city finance, and city finance called me back an hour later to refer me to the police department.

To be as clear as possible, I am not interested in beating up on the city of Davis. I love living here, and some, such as a lieutenant in the police department, were very fast in getting back to me.

I think, rather, that we as a whole society have let fees, permits, deductions and “revenue enhancements” so thoroughly permeate our lives that we rarely question them. Most of those who do ask why let it go once they hear that immensely informative answer that “It’s for processing.”

We have fees for driving (tolls and registration), and fees for not driving (the DMV charges a “Planned Non-Operation” fee of $18 if you just want to store your car). One assemblywoman in New Jersey recently introduced legislation for a statewide bike registration fee. Another city in New York used Google Earth to find residences with un-permitted swimming pools. The city made over $75,000 before discontinuing the practice.

One of my favorites is the “convenience fee” for paying something online, as if some poor sap has to undergo backbreaking labor every time you click a few buttons. UC Davis charges a fee of $12 for paying tuition online with a credit card. Yolo County property taxes come with a 2.5 percent fee for using a credit card to pay that whopping bill.

Sometimes the government wants to raise our taxes, but they don’t want to get in trouble, so they call them “fees” instead. Maybe with a quick word change it won’t impact their re-election chances. People have fees all day, every day, right? What difference does it make to have one more?

E-mail ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu. Convenience fee will apply.



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