February 21, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

What Do You Get in Exchange for That Fee, Anyway?

fire alarm

Sometimes you have to pay for the privilege of thinking ahead.

Recently we spoke to an old friend, Bronson, a longtime resident of Columbia. The subject turned to regulations on businesses, and Bronnie (as we know him) told us a story that made us roar with laughter.

It also made us a littles sad, though – because it illustrates so much of what’s wrong with government at all levels.

“After we retired in 1995,” Bronnie says, “my friend Billy and I opened a very small barbeque joint in Grice’s Market on Huger Street. And so right before we opened, the city code inspector came around.”

The two entrepreneurs had just bought a fire alarm and installed it. The code inspector praised them for thinking ahead and making their workplace safe, right? Wrong.

“The inspector says, ‘You have to have a permit for that.’ I said, ‘A permit to have a fire alarm?” ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘you gotta apply for the permit, too.’”

So Bronnie dutifully trekked down to City Hall and applied for the permit to install a fire alarm. The permit was readily granted, Bronnie remembers.

“But I had to pay a 25 dollar fee just to apply,” he says. “So as I was paying the fee, I asked the very nice lady at the desk, ‘Ma’am, can I ask you a question? I’m paying the city 25 dollars. What do I get in return?

“She thought for a minute, and then it came to her: ‘A receipt.’”

Brilliant answer. We respect the lady for a witty response, whether she meant it to be witty or not.

The truth, of course, was that the city was only charging a “fee” for this non-service because it could. South Carolina local and state governments have become notorious in recent decades for having some of the highest fines and fees in the nation. And they are as high as they are because lawmakers – and sometimes unelected bureaucrats – can raise them without anyone criticizing them for “raising taxes,” and often without anyone noticing at all.

Oh, one other thing. Do you have a permit for that fire alarm? If you don’t, apply here.

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The Nerve