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Drowning in Liquor Laws

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Add me to the list of those pleased to read Bill Wyman's coverage of the Byzantine practices of the city's liquor-control commission [Hitsville, April 12]. As another music venue that has endured such similar extortion tactics from the city, I was enthused to read Wyman's rhetorical question as to whether the city wants music clubs or not. This was more or less the same question I asked Commissioner Mardis as I sat in his office.

In our case, we were visited one Saturday night by several agents from the Department of Revenue, citing us on four counts, including not displaying the state license (which had not been mailed out due to a computer malfunction at the state office), not having a food purveyor's license (even though we never sold food), and two other charges. All four counts were dismissed in court. Nevertheless, when called before Commissioner Mardis, I was given the choice of closing my business or paying $500, even though we were not guilty of any wrongdoing and had been vindicated in a court of law.

On a second occasion, we were visited one afternoon by three undercover police officers. One woman, who looked 30 to our afternoon bartender, asked to buy a beer to go. When our bartender declined the woman then said, "Well, I'll drink it here." We were busted for selling to a minor, which I later understood was part of a citywide dragnet subsequently roundly criticized for resembling "entrapment" practices.

However, on the second round of charges, when called before Mardis, we were given the choice to close for five days or pay a $700 fine. In five years of operation, this was really a first offense. Mardis, however, insisted that we had voluntarily agreed to pay the first charge and this constituted as a second offense. He also intimated that he was doing us a favor and really could revoke our license. The first "dismissed charges" remain in our record.

When we moved our tavern in July, we were told by the commission we could transfer our license to our new location, only to be told later by the Department of Revenue's liquor licensing department that was untrue. As most small businesses can attest, getting a straight answer from City Hall is an exercise in futility. The story of Lounge Ax and their conundrum is really the story of small business and City Hall.

Taverns pay $990 per six months for their license. Add hundreds of dollars for other miscellaneous licenses (PPA/music and dance), thousands of dollars in sales tax each month, real estate taxes, payroll taxes, etc. We collectively employ thousands of bartenders, waiters, security people, sound engineers, bookkeepers, beer delivery drivers, custodial workers, a good part of the advertising staff at the Reader, brewery workers, etc. On top of that, music venues are putting into the pockets hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to employ artists, some of whom draw visitors from around the world to spend money in Chicago.

We are hefty contributors to the state economy. Parking tickets and fines and penalties now collected from the city have increased in the last eight years 33 percent. In lieu of any industrial retention policies the city relies increasingly on squeezing small businesses, employing the tactics outlined here and in Wyman's columns. At some point it is a losing proposition to do business in Chicago.

Carmen Valasquez

Lobo Lounge

Back of the Yards

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