Doing Business with the City of Miami Beach

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Doing Business with the City of Miami Beach:

One writer's experience

Reporters aren’t supposed to make the story about them, but this one needed writing. What follows is my personal experience applying for a City of Miami Beach Business Tax Receipt. More commonly known as a BTR, it is the required license to do business here. The account is part frustration, part snark, part catharsis. 
 
Meanwhile, the City will host a Small Business Town Hall next week with the Mayor and Commissioners to discuss ways “to enhance” the City’s partnership with small businesses “and open the lines of communication on how best to work together.”
 
***

I'm not the first to say this, but here it is: The City of Miami Beach's BTR process is seriously broken.

Case in point: I was served this week with a $1,000 violation for not having a BTR. My offense? The City had not properly closed out an old BTR resulting in a Code Compliance officer meeting me in the lobby of my condo building, having me sign for the violation notice, and telling me how to fix what ultimately turned out to be the City’s mistake.
 
Yes, dear reader, we are talking about a BTR for a home-based writer. And a $1,000 fine for allegedly not having one.
 
But let’s start at the beginning. As my friends well know, there are a lot of rules I’m willing to break but, when it comes to the law, I’m a “good girl.” When RE:MiamiBeach was started in September 2016, I began navigating the process of making sure the LLC under which it operates was appropriately registered with the City and State to do business. The State portion was easy and clear. The City’s, not so much. At the time, the City's website gave a list of categories for businesses required to have a license, none of which I fit into for certain but I couldn’t be sure. Finally, I was able to reach someone on the phone who, after putting me on hold and checking, said that, yes, I did need a BTR.  

That began a six month odyssey of getting a business license. For a home-based business. A simple newsletter.
 
After learning I needed a BTR, I headed to the “Customer Service Center” at 17th and Meridian with all of my corporate documents. The process involved a formal application followed by an approval process that included “review and/or inspection” by the Fire, Planning, Code Compliance, Public Works, and Building Departments. Thinking maybe I ended up in the wrong place or that I wasn’t describing my business activities clearly, I explained I write a blog and newsletter that involves covering events at other locations and conducting interviews over the phone. Other than me (and two small dogs and a cat who supervise my work), no one else is in my office. No “clients or customers” or interview subjects. I go to them. I’m not sure I understand why I would go through the same process as a business for whom public safety is a factor – restaurant, nightclub, theater, to name a few that immediately come to mind. The staff person taking my application said he understood but assured me this is “the process” for all businesses. I shrugged and paid my $45 application fee and waited. And waited. And waited.
 
Coincidentally, I heard from my condo management office that it had discovered an old fire violation that no one knew about. It was found when another home-based business applied for a BTR and was rejected because of the violation. In her case, she was told she could not get her BTR until the fire violation – which turned out to be some broken exit lights – was fixed. Ah. So that’s what happened. Based on what I’d heard about doing business in the City of Miami Beach, this explanation actually seemed normal.
 
In the meantime, I participated in the City’s Leadership Academy. During one session, Manny Marquez, Assistant Director for the Finance Department, talked about his group’s services which include the BTR process. He asked for a show of hands of anyone who had applied for one. Mine was the only one that went up. He looked at me and said “I hope it was a good process.” 
 
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I haven’t gotten it yet.”
 
“How long has it been,” he asked.
 
“Six months.”
 
A pained look came over his face. “See me after tonight’s session.” Apparently, that wasn’t normal after all.
 
When the session ended, I explained my predicament with my condo building having the fire exit violation that we were working to clear up but that I understood my BTR would remain in limbo until it was fixed because I couldn’t pass the Fire Department review. “Really, I’m trying to pay you to do business in Miami Beach,” I remember saying. “I’m trying to do the right thing!” 
 
[And did I mention I’m just a writer who works from home?]
 
That night, I had an email from a member of Marquez’ staff that I should go into the Customer Service Center and pay for my BTR and it would be issued immediately.
 
Well… not so fast. When I got there, the Fire Department objections were still on my BTR application and the clerk could not override it. I think he was confused why I was there as the process was not complete based on what his computer was telling him.

Tentatively, I said, “I’m here because Manny Marquez said this was resolved.” Again, I’m staring at a pained face followed by a sharp, almost accusatory question, “Why is Manny involved?” 
 
“Because I ran into him last night and he asked about my BTR experience. One of his staff members told me I could come get my BTR today.” 
 
The clerk disappeared for a while. When he came back he said he had spoken to Marquez.

“What did he say?” I asked. 
 
“He said, ‘Release. Her. BTR.’” Were those clenched teeth? I couldn’t tell. 
 
No matter. I walked out of there that day with my business license. I was kind of proud of it, actually. I was official!
 
But, really, had I not run into Marquez at the Leadership Academy would I have just had to keep going into the Customer Service Center until the BTR was cleared through “the process”? How would I have known otherwise?
 
When it came time to renew my BTR, we had sold our condo and moved into a rental apartment while going through the offer process and renovation on another one. Flashing back to that first experience, I decided to skirt the system and make it easy on myself. I opted to renew my BTR at the old address, figuring I would change my address permanently once the purchase was complete. All of a sudden the “letter of the law” follower thought, “Who cares if the address is correct? After all, I’m keeping my business license updated and the City is getting paid.” 
 
Once I officially had a new address, the dread overtook me. I did not even want to go through what should be the simple process of changing my address. I let my BTR expire in October 2018. Finally, I dragged myself back to the Customer Service Center in December. How hard could it be? Turns out, hard. Really hard. 
 
Change of address on a home-based BTR? Sorry, you have to close the old BTR and open a new one. But, good news, I was told, there was a new Home-Based Business form. Great. Easier process, right? Well, no. The new form is the same as the old form with the addition of the words Home-Based Business typed at the top. Read that again and let it sink in. The new form is the same as the old form with the addition of the words Home-Based Business typed at the top. 
 
No, really, you can’t make this stuff up.
 
The process? The same “review and/or inspection” by the Fire, Planning, Code Compliance, Public Works, and Building Departments. 
 
Finally, after more time at the Customer Service Center, the old BTR was closed out (or so I thought) and a new one applied for. I paid my $45 application fee and left at least knowing I had tried to follow the rules and was in process so technically legal, right? 
 
At this point I’m beginning to wonder how much City staff time is taken up by this process and how much revenue the City loses because it's just too darned hard.
 
Again, I wait. And wait. And wait.
 
Then last Friday, I get a voicemail from a Code Compliance officer trying to deliver a violation notice for operating without a BTR. Panicked, I stop my regular publication schedule to figure out what I missed. Was my BTR approved and I hadn’t paid for it? I didn’t receive anything in the mail. An email search turns up two emails… one on January 9 with an update that I had passed Building, Finance, Planning, and Code Compliance reviews. On February 6, I received an invoice for $64.74 for a “late fee." Had my mistake been that I missed the $64.74 charge and not paid it, resulting in the violation? Confusing but still my responsibility. I try to pay the fee online Friday night to negate the violation but the system will not take my payment. I assume that is because a violation had already been issued.
 
Frantically, I search the City’s website to figure out how to pay the BTR fee ($259) online. If I was getting a late fee, I must have also missed the BTR fee… yet I hadn’t been notified that I had passed all the reviews. I spend a lot of time on the City’s website and am the first to say the “new” design a year or so ago made the system very hard to navigate and find what you’re looking for and here was another case, though much more important to me than any of my other searches. I could not figure out how to view or pay for a BTR. I couldn’t even find the information I found when I first got my BTR describing the process of who has to have one and how to apply.
 
The $64 late fee charge had a link to an online invoice but it was not connected to anything. It listed the old address but was that because the old address was still in the system or was this the old BTR? Had there been a link to my account, I could have seen it was related to the old, supposedly closed out BTR and not a mistaken address on the new BTR.
 
I listen again to the Code Compliance officer’s voicemail. He was trying to deliver the violation letter to my old address. He left his email address for a response. I send him a note explaining that I think this might be for the old BTR and could he confirm that or let me know how to ensure all correct fees were brought up to date.
 
He responded:
 
I will stop by your office today to formally hand deliver the notice of violation to you.
 
You have 2 options.
 
The first option is to pay the fine. However, it does not solve the problem of operating without an active and current Business Tax Receipt (BTR).
 
The second option is to appeal the violation with the Office of the City of Miami Beach Special Master. After you appeal, a hearing is scheduled where you can explain to the Special Master what happened. The hearing is, usually, scheduled 1-2 months in the future, which gives you sufficient time to contact the City of Miami Beach Finance Department and remedy the BTR issue.
 
Thank you and regards,   
 
Ouch. Assumption of guilt... “it does not solve the problem of operating without an active and current Business Tax Receipt (BTR).” 
 
I cringe when my front desk calls a short while later to say “A Code Compliance officer is here for you.”
 
I meet Alfred in my lobby. Nice guy. Tough job. Calm. Professional. That said, he couldn’t tell me anything about the violation or which BTR it was for, the old or new. He’s simply the messenger. “I deliver what Finance gives me.” He explained the appeal process again. Go straight to Special Master’s Hearing. That’s “the process.”
 
First, I need to understand what we're talking about here and, aside from the violation, how to pay for the actual BTR. So, I head over to the Customer Service Center where Sebestyen, another nice city staff person, greets me.
 
I bring him up to speed and ask if he can help me figure out how to resolve the issue. 
 
For a moment, he's speechless. “I’ve never seen a home-based business receive a violation for lack of a BTR.” 
 
I nod. 
 
[Trust me, dude, I’m shaking my head, too.]
 
“Let’s take a look,” he says as he gets to work. “This violation is for the old BTR. It wasn’t closed out for some reason.”
 
First, I’m relieved. Vindication. Then, all of a sudden, the creative juices take hold. I can see where this is going and the material is just too rich for a writer to ignore. As I start composing the story in my head, the evil me – eyebrow arched – is getting ready to pounce. I calmly ask the questions like I would in an interview. I feel a little guilty. Poor guy doesn’t know I’m now having fun. Probably too much fun.  Bahahaha. 
 
But, seriously, I tell myself, I deserve a little fun after having my heart stop over being served with a $1,000 violation for something I didn’t do, right?
 
“So, what happens to the violation?”
 
“You’ll still need to appeal it. You go to the City Clerk’s office and pay a $100 fee for the hearing.”
 
“I have to pay $100 for a hearing to appeal the City’s mistake?”
 
“Yes, but it will be returned to you…”
 
“…once the violation is dismissed,” I finish his sentence.
 
“Right.” 
 
“Just to confirm, this is because the City did not close out my old BTR but I still need to appeal it?”
 
“Yes, that’s the process. Once a violation is written it has to go to a hearing.”
 
“Even if it’s the City’s mistake.”
 
“Yes, that’s the process.”
 
To his credit, he offered that if I come back a couple of days before my hearing, he would introduce me to his supervisor to make the process go quickly on the day of the hearing. 
 
[But that’s one more trip here, not to mention a hearing that will be scheduled at the Special Master’s convenience, not mine, during which time I will forego whatever event I might want to cover for my blog, my primary business, while I sit and wait for my case to be called.]
 
I thank him.
 
Okay now on to figuring out where the new BTR is being held up. Turns out, it’s in limbo due to… wait for it… the Fire Department. My building’s hallways were damaged during Irma and throughout the repair and mold remediation process some walls were open, meaning we were required to have fire watch 24/7. That has since been lifted but I assume my application went through the Fire Department during the time we were on fire watch. 
 
[Is there no process whereby the Fire Department looks at it again? Or is it up to the business owner who did not receive notification of a rejection to keep checking back? Given the nature of technology, can’t this be automated to make everyone’s life easier? Did I mention I’m a writer who doesn’t see customers or clients on-site?]
 
Sebestyen said “I’ll talk to my supervisor to see if we can waive that.” He disappears. 
 
When he comes back, poof. The Fire Department issue goes away. 
 
I pay my fee, get a new BTR assigned to my, by now, somewhat old address.
 
Then it’s off to the City Clerk’s office to schedule the Special Master’s hearing. I explain to the clerk that the City did not close my old BTR so I guess I need to schedule a hearing.
 
Another nice City staffer – they all seem to be nice but unable to help me – feels my pain. “I’m really sorry, once a violation is issued, that’s the process.” She hands me a form to fill out and I pay my $100 deposit.
 
The kicker? The nice City staff person tells me I will be notified of my hearing date by certified mail. My evil twin returns to calmly ask, “So if I’m not home when the letter arrives, I have to take time away from my business to go to the Post Office and wait in line to sign for it... so I can appeal the City’s mistake?” I think I bit my lip, stifling a laugh. 
 
[Really, they’re making it way too easy to write this story.]
 
Once again, I heard “I’m so sorry. That’s the process.”
 
Ah, yes, the process. The process that seems to be very, very broken.
 
***

Postscript: Turns out at least a couple of people in the City’s Finance Department agree. After I returned home – to my office where I do not see customers (yes, I’m going to keep beating that dead horse) – I received a call from the original fixer, Manny Marquez. Turns out Sebestyen brought my case to his attention saying it “didn’t seem right” and asked him to take a look. Okay, Sebestyen, now I do feel guilty that I was having so much fun.
 
Marquez told me “You did everything right and we didn’t.” The good girl in me was pleased. In the first place, he said, I should have been able to transfer my BTR to a new location but when the new process was started, the old BTR was not closed out properly. He apologized several times and said the City was embarking on an effort to do better with small businesses. In this case, he said, he didn’t think home-based businesses should have to go through the Fire, Planning, Code Compliance, Public Works, and Building Department processes and he raised that to Planning Director Tom Mooney after looking into my issue.
 
In reviewing my last application, the one with the “Home-Based Business” form, I notice the list of rules for Home-Based Business offices including this one: “No customer, client, business associate, sales person, assistant or other nonresident shall be permitted to visit the home-based business office for purposes of transacting business.” Exactly. So why the “review and/or inspection” process?
 
Marquez also told me my experience will be a case study at the Department’s next staff meeting. So, change may be coming. If, in the end, this written version of the story adds to that effort, then there truly is power – for good – in the pen. Or, in this case, MacBook Pro. 
 
The violation? Marquez has asked Code Compliance to dismiss it so I don’t have to spend time at a Special Master’s hearing where the case is only going to be closed anyway. I didn’t tell him yet that I already paid my $100 fee and am in the system for a hearing… that’s next week’s problem.
 
Am I naïve enough to think the fact that I am a writer who covers Miami Beach didn’t play a role in this? No. But I’d also like to think Sebestyen is the hero here who saw a problem that needed fixing and did something about it.
 
Stay tuned!
 
 
City of Miami Beach Small Business Town Hall
Mayor Dan Gelber and City Commissioners
Monday, May 6, 6:00 pm
City Hall, Commission Chambers
 
I’d love to hear from others about their experiences. Email me at susanaskew@remiamibeach.com
 
 

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