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The InTowner
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We keep hearing from the mayor and city council members about how important small businesses are for the city –- for generating employment and tax dollars –- yet the District continues to be ranked as the worst among all the states for small business, according to the measures used by the northern Virginia-based Small Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) Council. About the only positive they note for DC is that we do not have an individual and business alternative minimum tax. (Note to the politicians: don’t even think about it!)

While SBE’s focus appears to be on matters of tax burden, our focus is on regulatory burden. We do not mean regulatory burden in the same way that Tea Potters and their ilk in Congress mean it. What we mean is regulatory burden that has its motivation more toward simply raising cash and often for no other purpose than promoting a “nanny state” agenda –- all of which is overseen by an eager bureaucracy that forces small business people (as well as ordinary residents) to navigate from pillar to post within agencies and between different offices where one contradicts what the referring office had instructed.

An example is that of a new regulation promulgated by the Department of Health that will impose an additional burden especially on independent neighborhood restaurants, cafés, specialty food stores and markets by demanding a new regulatory fee in addition to the basic business license fee and on top of the existing public health food establishment retail endorsement currently due to the District every two years. This new biannual fee could be as high as $1,900, depending on an establishment’s number of seats, square-footage, and the extent to which food preparation using raw ingredients is done. And it’s not just the types of obvious establishments that will have to pony up; the new fee schedule will also apply to any neighborhood bed and breakfasts, private schools, religious, civic, social, and political organizations that serve food.

We are dubious that the health department’s proposed fees above and beyond what food establishments already pay to the city will ensure some new, higher level of consumer health protection. To us, this looks to be no more than another scheme to suck revenue from the bottom line of already stressed small businesses and non-profits at a time of economic uncertainty.

Then there is the recently introduced energy bill before the City Council, sponsored by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, and at-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson that includes a requirement that commercial properties of greater than 4,000 square feet “keep exterior doors and windows closed when an air conditioner that cools the adjacent area is in operation.”

While there exemptions for businesses operating in less than 4,000 square feet and that have but one location, one has to question the rationale for creating a regulatory regime that not only creates new burdens on business but that will require umpteen inspectors to enforce at great cost to an already financially squeezed city budget.

And, what is the purpose, other than to extract more money through fines? Apparently, the purpose is to somehow enforce energy conservation with a view to bettering the public welfare. But doesn’t it seem more probable that the private sector is in the better position to regulate its own energy use? After all, all an owner or manager needs to do to shock themselves into submission is to take a look at their Pepco bill! Do the members of our City Council really believe that private business owners and landlords are so stupid that they won’t keep the lobby doors closed on a hot day and will really be oblivious to the costs?

As long-time community business advocate and local small businessperson Mark Lee wrote in an opinion piece published by the Washington Blade on April 25, 2012, “Instead of scheming up overzealous and ridiculous new business micromanagement measures of either controversial or counterproductive merit, we would be better served by sensible Council members supportive of local businesses and the revenues they generate. Let’s hope this latest provision is quickly tossed in the legislative dustbin.” His entire commentary can be found by linking to