Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Business License-- Bunt or Foul Ball?

I just got back from a long City Council meeting this evening. For a second time the business license proposal was discussed, but no action was taken. It will be back for consideration in two weeks. I continue to be impressed at the quality of public comment at council meetings. More than a dozen people spoke-- mostly opposed, though two spoke in favor. All the statements were clear and well reasoned, people avoided repetition, and many good metaphors were recruited to "drive home" the points.

I am against this ordinance because I think it doesn't really accomplish anything, but I am starting to understand what its supporters are looking for. Unfortunately I think they are supporting an abstract concept rather than a specific ordinance.

Ordinance 1901, to greatly simplify, states that it provides for the collection of a business license fee from all city businesses to pay for generation of a database of businesses to help the city enforce a wide range of health and public safety rules.

Numerous reasons have been advanced for the ordinance, but in the comments and council deliberations two bells keep getting rung. The first seems trivial, but it has resonance. Many people would like to be sure the police and fire departments know how to contact them in an emergency. The second is much more difficult. Established businesses want to guarantee a "level playing field". They have to play by a complicated set of rule-- everything from health inspections to sign ordinances-- and they are not happy that there are less legit businesses "flying beneath the radar" (or "skating by") and unfairly taking some of their business.

As a business owner I can understand the frustration. I design and manufacture electronic instruments, so believe me when I say I understand unfair competition. The connection I haven't been able to make yet is how this license program helps solve this problem. In what way will this license program improve compliance with existing rules? I just don't get it. It explicitly does not raise revenue to pay for more code enforcement staff. It does not "add teeth" to existing code. It just makes a list, and charges businesses for that privilege.

The discussion has brought up several points which I would like to see the city work on independent of Ordinance 1901:
  • We need to prepare an information packet to tell new businesses what rules they will have to deal with in our city
  • We need to be sure we allocate the funds so the fire marshal can inspect structures on a regular basis
  • We need to change Title 17 of the municipal code to prohibit hazardous materials in home occupation businesses (as defined by the State Fire Marshal in ORS 453)
  • We need a streamlined process for people to report suspected code violations, since that's our best hope for improved enforcement.
  • We need a voluntary program to allow businesses and individuals to register emergency contact info with the city.
Unfortunately discussion of this ordinance has been generating more anger and cynicism than real solutions. I frankly hate to see our City Manager spending so much of his time trying to craft a business ordinance when we have such a serious budget problem. Maybe this idea should be revisited in three years after our deficit is history, but for now I'd like to see him "keep his eye on the ball."


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