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Risky business 

Hani Shuaibi, owner of a city corner store, already has security cameras that can replay events up to three days old. And soon, that may not be enough to keep him in business. Shuaibi stood in front of fellow business owners and city officials at a public forum Monday, June 14, to express concern about pending legislation that could dramatically stiffen the regulations governing city businesses.

            We want our streets to be safe, the 25-year-old father of three said, but pressuring business owners won't make that happen. The audience spontaneously clapped in support.

            Shuaibi, like a number of small-business owners in the city, is frustrated by proposed city legislation that would make it more difficult to obtain a Certificate of Use. The certificate grants people the right to operate a business in the city. The documents are now issued for the life of the business, for a $25 fee.

            But legislation proposed by Mayor Bill Johnson would require business operators to be screened and subject to police background checks before receiving their certificate. Anyone guilty of tax delinquency or crimes related to business operation may be denied.

            Operators also wouldn't be able to leave town for more than a month with a manager or other employee at the helm. Operating without a certificate would cost $100, $300, and $600 per offense compared to the $25, $35, and $65 currently charged. And that certificate, now good for the life of a business, would need to be renewed annually for a $100 fee.

One bad business in a commercial strip can cause consumers to boycott the whole area, says Neighborhood Empowerment Team Director Rod Cox-Cooper. "The problem of illegal businesses is of such a magnitude that we have to do something about them for the sake our neighborhoods," he says.

            Joan Roby-Davison, executive director of Group 14621, supports the legislation because it "closes a lot of loopholes." The law as it stands, she says, is tilted to protect the rights of business owners over members of the larger community.

            The legislation also calls for more businesses to be covered by certificates of use. About 900 food stores, restaurants, bars, and drug stores are now required to have them, but that would be expanded to include hair and nail salons, barber shops, laundromats, liquor stores, small retail stores, and smoke shops. In all, nearly 2,200 businesses would be required to gain certificates.

            A $100 certificate renewal fee, then, would generate up to $200,000 per year in revenue for the city. (And there wouldn't be any double-dipping: 230 businesses operating with entertainment licenses, which can cost upwards of $400, would be exempt from the $100 fee.) Money generated from certificate renewal would pay for new staff to support the program, Cox-Cooper says. One full-time inspector, three part-time inspectors, and two clerks would be hired.

Some business owners see these added inspections as superfluous. Mohammad Tahir, who owns S&A Market on Child Street, says he already has Food and Drug Administration and Fire Department inspections each year. "So what kind of inspection does the NET office need?" he asks.

            Tahir returns to his home country of Pakistan every few years, sometimes staying for two or three months at a time. In the past, he left his manager to run the store. He worries that the legislation would prevent him from taking these trips. "We try to run our own business so we're free. This means we have no freedom," he says.

            At Monday's meeting, Cox-Cooper assured business operators that they would be able to leave for extended periods as long as they told the NET office in advance.

Now that city officials have heard the public's input, the legislation could go before the council at its next full meeting on June 22. Or it could get tweaked based on the suggestions of those who spoke, and voted on at a later date.

Roby-Davison has suggested that people who trigger more calls for service could be assessed at a higher level, she says, so that law-abiding businesses aren't stuck with a flat $100 renewal fee. The annual fee is one of the most contentious pieces of the legislation.

Still, even if the fee stays, Roby-Davison hopes the legislation is adopted. "I don't think anybody's happy about the fee," she says. "But I think we all pay a lot of different costs, not because we do anything that's particularly negative. It's just the cost of operating or doing business in a civilized society."

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