Hamilton massage parlour rubbed wrong way by city's fee hike

The owner of one of Hamilton's two legal body rub parlours says an increased city licensing fee makes it harder for her business to compete against illegal operations.

Increased fees used to fund hunt for illegal parlours, city says

The owner of the Garden of Eden spa says the increased licensing fee for Hamilton's two legal body rub parlours is unfair. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Darlene Miller knows council doesn't like her occupation. But lately, she can't help but feel that they're legislating her out of existence.

Miller owns the Garden of Eden spa, an erotic massage parlour on Kenilworth Avenue North. She got a rude awakening last year when her new manager went to city hall for a licence to be a body rub parlour manager.

In one year, it had increased from $307 to $1,235 — a steep fee for a minimum-wage position, she said.

The city has also increased the licensing fee for a body rub attendant — from $304 to $435 in 2012. The Garden of Eden is located in the heart of Hamilton's industrial area, and in the past 10 years, business has slowed, Miller said.

"Not only is the economy getting bad, but we're faced with competition from so many illegal places in one small city," she said. "It's been bad, bad, bad."

For Miller, the impact is clear. The increased fee makes it harder for Hamilton's two licensed body rub parlours, which adhere to strict city guidelines and bylaws, to stay in business.

And it encourages the scores of underground fly-by-night operations to continue operating illegally, taxing the limits of city bylaw enforcement officers and creating a less safe environment for the women who work there.

For Miller, it's shoddy handling of an industry that council doesn't want to think about. She feels discriminated against "in a big way," she said.

"It's insane," she said of the licensing fee increase. "They really want to cut down [the number of licences] to zero. That's what I think they're doing."

Parlour rules

Erotic massage parlours are included under a city bylaw covering "various businesses." It states that there can only be two parlours in the city, and specifies their locations. One is the Garden of Eden spa and the other is King Sherman Sauna on King Street East.

The licensed places must obey rules that are strictly enforced, covering hours and standards of operation. The underground ones — which take away from Miller's business — are not monitored.

"They tell us when we can open, when we can close," she said. "We can be raided at any time."

Attendants seem to prefer working at licensed establishments too, Miller said. The city bylaw dictates that there must be a manager on at any time, so the girls can't work alone. It also mandates that the operations close at 1 a.m., which eliminates some of the more drunken, rowdy clients.

Enforcement issues

Council voted in March 2012 to increase the licence fee. The hike was recommended for body rub parlour licences as well as numerous other licences that could be boosted to recover the city's cost of dealing with these operations, said Al Fletcher, Hamilton's acting manager of licensing and permits.

Part of the cost in question includes the expense of finding and busting illegal body rub parlours. The city finds them through ads in View magazine, neighbour complaints or other word-of-mouth tips, Fletcher said.

The city struggles to keep up as unlicensed parlours pop up with different names. They masquerade as holistic wellness services, or regular massage services. There are only five bylaw enforcement officers to keep up with all of them, Fletcher said.

It would make it easier for bylaw enforcement if more licences were issued so the city knew where the parlours were, he admitted.

"There's two sides to it, definitely."

Coun. Brad Clark was chair of the planning committee when the licensing fee increase passed. The fee helps the city crack down on illegal parlours, Clark said. The city just closed one in Clark's Stoney Creek ward after a two-year battle.

"The justification for the larger fees on adult services was based upon the cost to actually dig out the ones that were illegal and shut them down," he said.

As for whether the city is trying to discourage the licensed places, "it would be inappropriate to try to shut businesses down simply by higher fees," he said.

"If you look across Ontario, most of the fees for those types of places are very close."

Miller will appear before the licensing tribunal on Feb. 6. The tribunal will look at revoking, suspending or adding additional conditions to the Garden of Eden's licence.