Saturday, May 18, 2024

The License Commission’s offices, seen in February 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Fees for small businesses reduced during the coronavirus crisis will continue through 2021, and officials plan additional fee waivers and to further streamline permitting processes, they said at a Tuesday hearing of the City Council’s Economic Development & University Relations Committee.

In the run-up to approving laws for home-based businesses and updating decades-old rules on what kind of retailers can set up where – the vote was Monday, ending six years of work – the council learned a lot, said vice mayor Alanna Mallon, who leads the committee.

“We have also heard that some of our fees are overly burdensome, others are nitpicking and outdated and should be considered for elimination,” Mallon said.

The committee’s discussion about “possible consolidation or elimination” of fees was joined by staff from a handful of city departments and representatives from the East Cambridge Business Association, Harvard Square Business Association, Kendall Square Business Association and Cambridge Local First. A single small-business owner signed up for public comment.

“We are moving into recovery mode. The policies we set and the barriers we remove in the months ahead will set the tone for a long time to come, and they’re going to have a direct bearing on whether our small businesses can recover from the negative effects of the pandemic,” said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Business Association.

Covid-era reductions

There was a 40 percent reduction in most licensing fees for businesses renewing in the fall of 2020 and this spring, officials said. These reductions – said to have led to savings of roughly $888,000 for local businesses – are set to stay in place for the year.

The types of licensing fees reduced cover alcohol, food service in bricks-and-mortar businesses or from trucks, entertainment, innholders, lodging houses and dormitories, secondhand stores, buses and cars for hire, car sales and rentals, garages and open-air parking lots, and a continuation of fee waivers for renewing taxi driver licenses and medallions, which began before Covid-19.

In addition, the city announced it would waive certain fees normally owed to the Inspectional Services Department in June and December, including for food handlers, bakeries, caterers and businesses seeking a “milk permit” – in all estimated to lead to an additional $120,000 in savings for businesses.

The extensions and the new round of fees to be waived come in response to a policy order submitted March 8 by Mallon, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and city councillors Patty Nolan and Dennis Carlone.

Fixing the process

City departments also committed to further streamlining licensing and permitting processes, which Duong Huynh, co-founder of Cicada Coffee Bar in Cambridge, called just as important as waiving fees. She described getting two kinds of certificate signed by the same inspectors more than a week apart based on the same visit to her Prospect Street eatery.

“A week of rent can easily be shaved off by a better, more navigable system,” she said of improving the city’s permitting system.

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of Cambridge Local First, agreed. “Simplifying and streamlining processes and ensuring quick city response can be very helpful. I love the idea of the city having a clear system or portal for permitting and licensing,” Skeadas said.

But fees cannot be eliminated entirely, stressed David Kale, assistant city manager for fiscal affairs. “Many licensing requirements are established by state law, including amusements, entertainment and alcohol,” he said. “These processes must be administered concurrently or in conjunction with local processes and are not subject to local discretion.”

Fees also must cover the costs associated with the administration of licensing and permitting offices, he said, and reductions have to be made up for with other revenue.

Building on the “one-stop shop”

In addition to fee reductions, city staff highlighted efforts over the past year to ease applications for some permits and licenses. These included expanded permitting for outdoor dining, technical assistance on applying for permits and licenses, and the creation of a “one-stop shop” to apply for premises extensions that brings together staff from the License Commission, Inspectional Services, Public Works, Traffic, Parking & Transportation, Information Technology, Law Department and City Manager’s Office. It resulted in 163 patio permits – 120 with extensions in the public way.

Given the success of the “one-stop shop,” Mallon asked whether similar measures could be taken across the board to reduce friction in dealing with city departments.

“We have to take a deeper dive and look into it,” said Nicole Murati Ferrer, chair of the License Commission. “There are certain requirements under the law that I’m sure [city solicitor Nancy] Glowa would have to look at … but definitely something we’re all looking at.”

Viewpoint and other efforts

City staff also highlighted a small business “office hours” series hosted by the Community Development Department, Inspectional Services and the City Manager’s Office, during which business owners can ask questions and get help with licensing and permitting. Officials said this virtual series will move to an in-person format as city offices open up.

Additionally, certain city departments have moved online to permitting software called Viewpoint. Officials said all will be on Viewpoint in the coming months. “As more departments come [to Viewpoint] it’ll be easier for us to be able to streamline these processes,” Murati Ferrer said.

Exact timelines weren’t given for the move to Viewpoint or the rollout of permitting and licensing roadmaps.