Small Business Town Hall Yields Suggestions for Improvement

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Small Business Town Hall Yields Suggestions for Improvement:

Miami Beach Seeking to Become More Business Friendly

First, a big thank you to all of you who read my saga of getting a business license in the City of Miami Beach. It quickly became RE:MiamiBeach’s most talked about article. 

Reaction was quick. Mayor Dan Gelber responded on Facebook, “Thanks for your story. I’m sorry you suffered through this process. It is really embarrassing and we have to fix it!!!” Both Assistant Finance Director Manny Marquez and City Manager Jimmy Morales apologized and said they were working to make things better. The code violation was dismissed and my deposit for the Special Master’s appeal was refunded. 
The attention and resolution were most appreciated. That said, the goal was not to fix my issue (okay, maybe a little bit it was) but to highlight a broken system that many businesses get caught in and, quite frankly, don’t have the public platform afforded me by RE:MiamiBeach to get their own resolution.
Timing is everything. My experience happened to coincide with a scheduled Small Business Town Hall providing the opportunity for the first in what will probably be a series of follow ups on what the City is doing to become more business friendly… or not.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola kicked off the Town Hall saying it was the “first of two or three.” While this one was in the evening, others may be at different times of day to accommodate more business owners. The intent, he said, is to discuss “How do we become more business friendly.”

Small businesses touch many in Miami Beach as they are “owned by residents and/or employ residents” and provide residents with places to shop and dine, Arriola said. But, he noted, Miami Beach has a reputation for being “not the most accommodating” place to do business. He said the City needs to “streamline and get better” and the goal of the Town Halls is to “identify ways we can get better.”
Commissioner Joy Malakoff said in a city that is seven square miles, large factories and manufacturing facilities can’t exist. As a result, she said, “We rely on small businesses” to fuel our economic engine.
Arriola emphasized that resiliency is about more than sea level rise, it’s also about economic resiliency and having “a diverse economy.” Part of the discussion, he said, needs to be about “what kind of businesses we want to attract” and finding a “good balance between mom and pops and national retailers.”
During the brainstorming session, City Manager Jimmy Morales said the City is working on a “How-to Guide” for opening a small business and is discussing ways the City can cut down on the delays in opening by creating more consistency in the inspection processes. Another idea is that after two rounds of inspections without approvals, a review committee would help find resolution.
Morales noted the new simplified pop-up permits that allow entrepreneurs to try retail and restaurant concepts in vacant retail spaces. By utilizing “like spaces” (e.g. a pop-up restaurant in an existing restaurant space), the permit process can be streamlined. The temporary permits are good for 90 days with an additional 90 day extension possible. Morales said the pop-up permits help landlords do short term rentals to cover some of their carrying costs on the empty space while at the same time helping businesses test new concepts before committing to long-term leases and build-outs.
The City is considering an electronic BTR process, making it simpler to get the necessary business license, though he added, “There is merit to having a one stop [center]. People can answer your questions” but “a lot could be done online.”
Aaron Tandy, Vice-Chair of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce Pillar Board, discussed ideas that came out of the Chamber’s recent Goals Conference with regard to doing business in Miami Beach. He echoed the consistency theme raised by Morales and suggested having City staff who specialize in the various types of businesses to help guide small businesses through the process of opening. “Attitude,” he said was another important facet of the process. Employees should have a “How can I help you” not “How can I create a problem for you” frame of mind.
Tandy said an online process was another item on the wish list. He also urged the City to incentivize landlords and tenants to think outside the box and to “be nimble,” something that he said is necessary for attracting millennial businesses.
Arriola wondered if there was a way to “treat small businesses differently, to fast track them.” Most are “not flush with cash. Delaying makes the difference between making it or breaking it.”
Jerry Libbin, President of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, sought “accountability for inspectors that don’t get it right.” Small businesses, he said, suffer delays, pay fines, have increased costs as a result of inconsistency in the process. “It’s not really good enough to say you still need to do [something to pass an inspection]” he said. “There has to be some accountability.”
David Sexton, who owns Painting with a Twist in Miami Beach, said he has been experiencing a nightmare of his own. Sexton told Mayor Dan Gelber, Arriola and Malakoff that he was on autopay for his BTR but when his credit card expired, instead of notifying him, the City let his BTR lapse. While he’s been working to get it reinstated, he’s racking up fines and fees. All it would have taken, he said, is a communication via email and/or text that his card had expired, something many businesses do. He said his business is “struggling” while “the fees are compounding.”
Arriola said there has to be “a better way to address administrative things” perhaps through a grace period. “A number of people are getting trapped,” he said. “We don’t want to close a business because of a technicality.”
He urged the City team to “be more creative. Let’s get in the mode of ‘We want to help you.’” 
If I may take some personal privilege here and make some suggestions… since I’ve already dug in deep on the issue, I might as well go further!
All businesses are not created equal: Many businesses today are primarily online with their owners based in a home office. Meetings are either online, on the phone, or in coffee shops. Or in the case of this entrepreneur, often in City Hall. “The process” as presented in the BTR application and as carried out in my case in both 2016 and 2018 required “review and/or” inspection by various City departments including Planning, Public Works, Code Compliance, Fire, and Building. To really streamline the process, home-based businesses – and perhaps there are others – should be exempt from that process. The City's own guidelines for home-based businesses indicate that “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.” When public safety is not an issue, inspections should not be required.

City Manager Jimmy Morales in a follow up to my story indicated I should not have been subject to those reviews, yet I was twice, and the application clearly states it’s required. So… somewhere there’s a disconnect that needs to be fixed.
Technology!!! The Building Department has a good system for calling for inspections, allowing you to see the status of each inspection, and scheduling inspectors to come back once issues have been addressed. It is completely online and very efficient – the system, that is. Not necessarily the process! 
Similarly, businesses should have the option to apply for a license online and, for those who need to go through the inspection process, see the status of those inspections and call for new ones when ready. As I noted in my initial story, twice the Fire Department flagged violations in my condo buildings so I failed the review and my BTR was stalled. I was never notified of that. Had there been an online option, I could have followed the progress of my BTR application and called for a follow up inspection when ready. Even though my business may not have needed to go through that process, many do. Having seen how inefficient it is, that would be my recommendation to improve it.
Although an online application option would exist, anyone who wants to go to the Customer Service Center to ask questions would still have that option. Though as I learned, going in-person doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the right answers!
Which brings me to training. Some of my issues could probably have been addressed with better training. That said, one of the most important actions the City can take is to empower employees to ask if a process makes sense. They are the ones on the front lines and in a position to raise issues like mine to their supervisors. In my case, Sebestyen came to my rescue, saying what I was experiencing “didn’t seem right” and asking Assistant Finance Director Manny Marquez to take a look at it. Ultimately, the issue was resolved… and, yes, frankly, my article played a role.
But, in the end, the story was not about me, rather about “the process” which needs improvement for everyone. This week’s dialog is, hopefully, a first step, however small, in that direction.

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