Altoona lax on enforcing ordinance

By now, the city of Altoona should be able to report significant progress on a plan to ascertain how many businesses might not now be paying the license fee they’re obligated to pay for “mechanical devices,” such as video games, that they have on their premises for their customers to play.

According to an article in the

Nov. 15 Mirror, the city, as of that date, was receiving mechanical device license income from 37 businesses having a total of 96 machines.

That article reported that a survey of the city’s business privilege tax rolls had found that there might be 121 additional businesses with such devices that have not been paying the fee, which is mandated under a city ordinance.

While it might be easy to criticize any businesses that haven’t been complying with the license and fee requirements, more criticism is due the city, which for whatever reason became negligent in enforcing the ordinance.

Since it might be difficult to pinpoint exactly when that negligence began, it’s reasonable to suspect that some newer businesses with such devices might not have known about the license-fee requirement until recently.

Yet, from the moment that ordinance went into effect, the city had the important legal foundation for determining which businesses had such machines and how many and, once that information was in hand, to bill the businesses where the fee was applicable.

It’s troubling to think that the negligence regarding licensing and collection of the licensing fee — $75 for each device — apparently was going on while the city was on the state’s financially distressed municipalities list.

While the city needed every dollar it could scrape together during its stint as a distressed city, it can be said that every dollar is no less important now.

At a strategic planning meeting on Nov. 13, city officials said that the mechanical device license fee currently brings in about $7,200 a year, but that much more money probably is “out there” from the 121 businesses — bars, restaurants and other locations — that have not been paying the fee.

It had to be disconcerting to businesses that have been paying, to learn that some of their competitors have been getting a “free ride.”

When city officials were asked the reasons for collecting the fee, one of the responses was that the money collected helps pay the administrative costs of inspections to determine which businesses have devices covered by the city ordinance. Another reason given is that the money helps pay the costs associated with maintenance of that data.

All considered, it must be presumed that the inspection process, for however long, hasn’t been carried out to its full potential and that the keeping of up-to-date records also has not gotten the attention that it deserves.

If the ordinance is to remain in force, the city must fix what’s been wrong. Hopefully, the process of doing that is well under way.

During the coming weeks, city leaders should keep the public updated on progress that has been made.