ESPRESSO’ s lead story describes a conflict between the SDPD’s Vice Squad and small entertainment venues of all kinds, including the many coffeehouses inside city limits concerning the rise of fees for yearly entertainment permits. The sharp increases in yearly costs for such permits are extraordinarily high and coupled with similar permit increases for the many things a cafe’ needs to operate here, the bureaucracy-inspired gouge of small businesses is threatening to their survival. Those causing the threat intend to impose a choice on San Diegans between security or culture. What San Diegans don’t know is that those forcing the change have stacked the deck against the good guys.
When times get tight and profit is down, a common mistake made by people with no business acumen is to raise prices for what they sell. In the case of city services, regulation is what they sell and their market is captive; every business has to buy–or else. Bureaucrats take it for granted that their budgets are sacrosanct and that all businesses roll in profits so going to the goose for another golden egg to keep the wheels of bureaucracy speeding along is the natural thing to do. It’ s a good thing people who think that way have government jobs because they’ d starve in the real world, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
SDPD is one such odd-thinking entity. Its Vice Squad regulates entertainment venues and in sets the rates for entertainment permits in San Diego and its new fees for them is based on a “quote cost recovery” approach that says that businesses regulated by Vice have to cough up all the coin Vice needs for its yearly budget. Permits for entertainment are source number one for this revenue. Other sources are licenses for holistic health practitioners, second hand dealers, bars, peep shows and other businesses that might become sources for crime. Entertainment venues of all kinds are seen as by Vice as fronts for drug and gang activity. This view has been around for the last half century if not longer. Of late, Vice no longer publishes its budget. It’ s budget is whatever they say it is and since SDPD has lost its media relations person and now requires emailed questions to be sent to whomever is on the end of a phone line with the usual bureaucratic lapses in returning messages as their usual tactic, news of their budget is likely to stay secret for longer than is good for business and the customers of those venues. Those who have a passing acquaintance with medieval Italian history will recognize a Black Hand when they see one. The tactics and philosophy of paying for “service” is no different from paying for “protection” . In San Diego the practices are elegantly indirect, combined and even lawful. They’re so smooth that even the rest of media can overlook them without breaking a sweat.
At the bottom of what appears to be a mere hike in fees is a sea change in thinking by the PD on how it earns its living. Vice has changed its form from a taxpayer paid, impartial function of government to a cash hungry predator looking to its ” customers” for increased revenue. This makes real what some libertarians have long yearned for–government function paid for entirely by those who consume it. What the crackpot theory doesn’t take into account is that government—in this case the PD—can force businesses to be their captive pockets to be picked.
Small venues perform some services that often go unsung: in the case of the coffeehouses, not only do they sell the caffein that keeps the citizens going through the motions daily, but many of them also provide small stages for new performers making their way into the mainstream. San Diego’ s coffeehouses can list some stellar names among those who started here: Jim Morrison of the Doors began at the Upper Cellar for starters; Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, The Cascades, Jewel, Blink 182 and many others are some others who began in the local coffee scene and the places they play in have discovered that entertainment pays if it’ s easy, cheap and unusual. Such elements are a way to make a local culture happen and grow. Making it much harder for those small venues to provide entertainment and afford SDPD is a direct threat against the growth of culture here. Every dime that disappears into the no longer public Vice budget is a deduction from creativity, talent, good music and a more human-scale society that allows some performers to provide what they know their public wants to hear. The higher cost of entertainment fee permits isn’t just more money for the cops—it’ s theft from business and and creatives in those businesses that shape the culture. It’s the inverse of the cops’ twisted assertion that entertainment equals crime; law enforcement equals suppression of things that make a community one’s own.
This shouldn’t be tolerated. Businesses do not need to work for the PD and creatives don’t need some secret editor making their music more difficult to find. Someday, the business community that is target number one for this odious kind of thing will have to get smart enough to organize effectively and lean on politicians long enough to push back against the City. If they don’t, they’ll find what every poor schmuck finds who gets convinced to pay for “protection”— that the cost always goes up and the terms won’t just bankrupt them, but directly harm everyone around them, too.