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Taking care of (bad) business


Illegal. Arbitrary. Unconstitutional.

These are just a few of the printable adjectives being thrown at the city's new "certificate of use" program in the conflict it has touched off.

On one side of the conflict is the City of Rochester. Last November, City Council overhauled the program the city uses to license certain small businesses. The idea was to make it tougher for "problem businesses" to operate --- businesses selling illegal guns or drugs from behind the counter, for instance, or giving cash for food stamps.

City officials say that those businesses have resulted in hundreds of police calls a year, as well as repeated problems for building and fire code inspectors. And they say when they tried to close one of the businesses, it was often nearly impossible to find out who owned it.

On the other side of the conflict is a group of business owners who say they feel victimized by the new procedure --- and, in the words of one, treated like criminals. Some have decided not to apply for the certificate or send in their $100 registration fee. Instead, they're vowing to try to overturn the ordinance.

The conflict's roots go back to 1996, when the city first created the certificate of use. Initially, the program covered a narrow range of businesses --- small restaurants, drug stores, and food stores. And there was only a one-time, $25 fee.

But after several years, city officials say, it was clear that the program wasn't working.

"Every section of the city had problem businesses that the city couldn't contain," says Rod Cox-Cooper, director of the city's Neighborhood Empowerment Teams.

To try to fix the program, NET officials looked at efforts in other cities, including Buffalo; Miami; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Portland, Maine. The result is the new C of U legislation. Businesses needing a C of U now include retail stores, salons and nail parlors, liquor stores, and coin-operated laundry facilities. The initial fee is $100, and businesses must renew their certificate each year, at a cost of $10.

The new legislation mandates a background check of the owner, the operator, and the location of the business. And city officials can hold up approval if there are outstanding violations of other city laws.

Although the revised legislation received media coverage when City Council approved it, some business owners say they hadn't heard about the changes until they received a letter and application form from the city this summer. What they read did not make them happy.

Lisa Bilski owns Park Avenue Pets, a pet store that moved from Park Avenue to Upper Monroe earlier this year. As a retail store, hers is one of the businesses that hadn't needed a certificate of use until this year.

She first became upset about the fee, which she calls a "hundred dollar extortion from the city." Then, she says, "it was that I was treated like a criminal --- the mug shot, the background check." Now, she says, she opposes the changes on principle: "It feels unconstitutional and like it's a violation of civil rights."

Bilski's reaction sums up some of the major complaints that have been voiced about the new C of U.

Why the $100 fee? The purpose, says Cox-Cooper, is to keep the program from becoming another burden for taxpayers.

"This program needs a dedicated staff," he says. "We also know that this program needs to be self-supporting." And he echoes Mayor Bill Johnson, who last week seemed to brush off complaints about the fee, telling Channel 10 that any business that couldn't afford it had bigger problems than the certificate of use.

Some business owners say they're also concerned about giving the city personal information like their Social Security number. Particularly galling, they say, is the requirement that they provide a copy of a recent phone bill if they have an unlisted home phone number.

"Once they get all this comprehensive information, what are they going to do with it?" asks Sarah Jane Moriarty, co-owner of Utter Clutter on Park Avenue. One rumor making the rounds is that the city might sell the information to marketing database companies.

But Cox-Cooper says the information has a legitimate use: tracking down hard-to-find owners of problem businesses. In the past, businesses have been set up in the name of someone living out of town or out of the country. Names, addresses, and phone numbers have been bogus or out of date.

"We had countless struggles over the past four years to verify people's identity," says Cox-Cooper.

Under the new law, when a business is denied a certificate of use, it can't apply again for a year. The critics, linking that provision to the background checks, have come up with this hypothetical threat: that if they or an employee got a parking ticket, they could be denied a certificate of use --- and because they'd have to wait a year to reapply, they'd basically be put out of business.

What the law requires, however, is a background check on owners and operators, not ordinary employees. And it says a C of U can be held up if the city has received a judgment in the case of a violation. To get a judgment on a long-delinquent fine, the city has to go to court. In other words, you'd have to get a bunch of traffic tickets, ignore them, and be taken to court before those tickets impeded a certificate of use application.

Cox-Cooper dismisses the parking-ticket scenario as extreme and unrealistic. "We're not going to be dealing with minor things," he says. "I challenge anyone to show me or the mayor where this has happened."

But even if the law isn't enforced so strictly that parking tickets become a matter of contention, it's still one more bureaucratic hurdle that makes doing business in the city harder, the critics say.

"It makes it a lot more attractive to go to the suburbs," says Moriarty. For Bilski, whose shop is within spitting distance of the Brighton town line, the temptation to leave the city is even more real.

"I can move five blocks down the street and I don't have to pay $100," she says.

But Cox-Cooper says that by effectively policing bad businesses, the city will make itself more attractive to businesses, not less.

"I think what you get is a better business climate," he says. "If one business [on a block] is bad, nobody's going to come in. It's better for us to take out that business so that everybody can thrive."

Rather than rewriting the law, why didn't the city just crack down on the problem businesses?

"The problem wasn't the lack of will or drive," says Cox-Cooper. "The problem was the law had no teeth. Even when we caught stores, the city --- whether it was the police or NET --- we were powerless to stop them from operating the next day. Somebody would go to jail; they'd get someone else to run it."

The next day: "business as usual."

Under the new law, the city has already denied a C of U to six businesses, and it has given several more a conditional certificate --- probationary approval, in effect. Cox-Cooper points to these numbers as proof that the change is already working.

Those numbers may sound small, he says, but with tens --- and in some cases even hundreds --- of police calls a year, a single problem business can cost the city dearly, in both time and money. Under the old certificate of use program, the average time it took to shut down a problem business was 13 months, says Cox-Cooper. And that was just the average: Many took even longer.

"If a taxpaying citizen lives in a neighborhood with a problem business, it's unacceptable for it to take us 13 months to shut it down," Cox-Cooper says.

"What if it was your neighborhood?" he asks. "You would want somebody to do something about it. That someone is us, and that something is the certificate of use."