It might have seemed like a good idea to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to scheme up a proposal to hike city fees for outdoor cafés by $1 million in the dreary days of winter. But it sure looked silly when the public caught wind of it last week in the run-up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
When D.C. Council members sat down at an all-day meeting to review Gray’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, incorporating Council recommendations, a previously little-known proposal to more than double sidewalk café fees for most businesses and nearly double them for the remaining few dominated public attention.
Dupont Circle eateries on 17th Street were featured on NBC4 News with reporter Tom Sherwood. Hank’s Oyster Bar manager Jeff Strine and Floriana Restaurant owner Dino Tapper pointed out that ever-increasing fees and taxes were a growing hardship for local establishments. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells pledged his opposition to the increase, saying, “It really sends a message to small business that we’re raising the fee for the sake of raising the fee.”
Mayor Gray wants to increase annual fees by 66 percent – although a companion provision eliminating prorated fees for partial-year seasonal operation converts it to a much higher amount for all but about 30 businesses among hundreds.
Reaction was equally swift and harsh to an additional element of the legislation. A D.C. Council committee, chaired by frequent enterprise nemesis Mary Cheh, had approved a new penalty stipulating that business owners could face imprisonment of up to 10 days or a fine of $1,000 for each day of a regulatory violation.
Local restaurateur and industry advocate Geoff Tracy remarked on social media, “I’ll never understand why politicians keep restaurants perpetually in the crosshairs.”
At-Large Council member David Grosso – not always a friend to local small businesses but proven when provoked to possess common-sense reactions to the most egregious excesses – took to Twitter to call the idea of locking up business owners for regulatory infractions “ridiculous.” Logan Circle neighborhood advisory chair Matt Raymond sardonically commented on Facebook, “We MUST get these dangerous scofflaws whose sidewalk cafés encroach one inch beyond their permit off the streets and behind bars, where they belong!”
You could envision neighborhood naysayers rustling around in kitchen drawers for tape measures. Cheh sensibly demurred, suggesting she was willing to remove the prison provision.
Gray’s proposal, along with Cheh’s committee, also relinquishes future D.C. Council control of regulations and fees – instead giving the executive exclusive authority to determine all licensing approvals, rules and permit costs. Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger had earlier written to Council members arguing against investing sole authority with the mayor.
“Sidewalk cafés contribute greatly to the ambiance of our city, create jobs and provide substantial revenues…through sales and employment taxes,” Hollinger wrote. “In addition, sidewalk cafés contribute to public safety, by encouraging ‘eyes on the street,’ a known inhibitor of criminal activity. Given these important contributions…the rental rates paid for the use of public space for cafés should be part of larger policy discussions before the full Council…”
D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, however, astonishingly revealed he thought the proposed fees weren’t set high enough.
David Garber, a neighborhood advisory commissioner in the rapidly developing Navy Yard area where residents gleefully cheer the opening of each new outdoor dining and drinking space, offered a succinct retort. “D.C. already has a reputation for being a difficult and costly place to start and run a business. When businesses and entrepreneurs are considering where to open, grow, and succeed, I hope that in the future our reputation is a little more friendly than it is today. Proposed fee increases like this won’t bring us there, and will ultimately cost us more than we hope to earn.”
D.C. Council budget deliberations get underway this week. As quick as an egg fries up on a hot summer sidewalk, the Council should reject these proposals.