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Liquor Inspection Program Worries Business Owners

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 15, 2008

Is Berkeley going dry? Dorothee Mitrani-Bell said there’s cause for concern in light of rising city regulatory and financial pressures. 

“Is Berkeley going Prohibition on us?” asked the proprietor of La Note at 2377 Shattuck Ave. and Cafe Clem at 2703 Seventh St. 

Her concern—shared by other small business owners who run restaurants and neighborhood stores—is that a new $467 annual inspection fee piled onto other license and training costs for businesses that sell alcohol places a heavy burden on those least able to afford it. 

The new fees would be imposed should the City Council vote tonight (Tuesday) to adopt an ordinance to implement the law it passed Dec. 11 titled Operating Standards for Alcohol Outlets. 

One concern, said an official of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), is that the smallest shops and restaurants must pay the same fee as major chain liquor stores. 

“It’s an equity issue,” said DBA Executive Director Deborah Badhia. 

The law applies to all vendors, whether small restaurants or corner stores with beer and wine licenses or full-scale liquor stores selling hard liquor by the bottle and case. 

The council’s unanimous vote in December followed a long campaign by the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition (BAPAC). 

Before that vote Councilmembers Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington argued for a tiered fee system, only to see their proposal fall on a 4-2-3 vote. 

Maio had argued that liquor stores should pay more because they produced more problems than restaurants. 

In addition to the annual fee, violators would be charged an additional $225.71 an hour for additional inspections made to ensure their compliance. 

In a memorandum to the council submitted in advance of tonight’s meeting, City Code Enforcement Supervisor Gregory Daniel said the fees are needed to cover the $150,000 annual costs of the program, which requires the hiring of 1.5 new city employees. 

The program calls for annual inspections of the 224 licensed vendors who sell drinks to customers and four inspections yearly for each of the 86 merchants who sell carry-out beer, wine and liquor. 

Passage of the ordinance would mark the culmination of more than two years of work by BAPAC and Students for a Safer Southside as well as churches and neighborhood organizations and other advocacy groups. 

BAPAC’s efforts have already led to enactment of two other ordinances last year. 

The first, dubbed the “social host” ordinance, levies penalties on adults who host gatherings where alcohol is served to minors. 

The second, the Responsible Beverage Service Training Ordinance, requires that anyone who serves alcohol—including waiters at restaurants and clerks at stores—must receive training within 90 days of starting the job from an instructor certified by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. 


Long struggle 

Tonight’s vote will be the culmination of an eight-year campaign that started with a group of neighbors concerned about drug dealing outside an Adeline Street liquor store. 

“We met with the store owner and the property owner, and it took them a while to come around,” recalled Ralph Adams, one of the founders of BAPAC. 

“They all started cleaning up around the property. They installed a camera and called police” when the dealers returned, he said. 

But when the same old characters started to return, neighbors decided broader action was needed and began meeting one night a week, bringing in a community organizer, creating a plan, adopting the BAPAC name and holding regular meetings with councilmembers and other community groups. 

Presenting the proposals to the City Council in April 2006, they eventually won a council directive for the city manager and city attorney to work with BAPAC on coming up with implementation measures. 

“There was a tremendous reluctance on the part of the city attorney’s office and Manuela Albuquerque,” Adams said of the city’s recently retired top lawyer. 

It was Zach Cowan, now acting city attorney, who came up with the written ordinances, including the final measure set for consideration tonight. 

“The only question is how to apportion the fees,” Adams said. “Both the city manager and we feel a flat fee is the fairest way. We had at least two meetings with stakeholder groups, and all they said was they wanted to make sure it was clearly spelled out.” 

Adams said he feels restaurants contribute as much to the city’s alcohol problems as do liquor stores, citing the results of recent state-funded enforcement efforts that found sales to minors at the majority of the city’s alcohol serving eateries. 

As for the amount of the fee, Adams said, “If they are open six days a week it comes out to a buck and a half a day. If they can’t afford that ...” 


Owner’s concern 

But Mitrani-Bell wrote that the new fee adds to the problems she already faces while trying to run a business in downtown Berkeley. 

She said her concerns include “Nightmarish parking practices (which turn people away), missed garbage pickups (and charge you a fee when they don’t come, attracting rodents), increases in fuel charges, minimum wages, taxes and insurance increases ... it is killing us.” 

Badhia said she will be attending the council meeting to share the concerns raised by Mitrani-Bell and other downtown business owners. 

“It’s a problem for the smaller establishments,” she said. “But itself, it’s not unreasonable, but in combination with other pressures, it’s a concern.” 

Mitrani-Bell said she was also concerned with the training program for servers for $30 per employee, which she said the state offers only infrequently and for small groups. 

Badhia said that commercial training is also available, and that the DBA is urging the ABC to allow for business owners to offer training in their own establishments.