May 5, 2010

EDITORIAL: Remedy for SLA delays



In 2008 and 2009, two restaurants that opened in the 45th State Senate District patrolled by Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) had to survive eight months before receiving the liquor licenses they so desperately needed to build their business.

Two others had to wait seven months, and seven had to wait six months. As any merchant will attest, those first months of a business are pivotal, and trying to nurture a fledgling restaurant without a liquor license is like trying to run a hamburger stand without rolls.

Why does it take so long to obtain something so essential to success in business?

Because the State Liquor Authority — the licensing agency — is swamped and understaffed. The 70 staff members assigned to licensing receive about 850 applications per month. Currently, they face a backlog of more than 3,000 applications.

This is not rubber-stamp processing. The decisions the Liquor Authority make can have success-or-failure influence on the businesses, at the least; life-or-death influence on the general public, at most.

The authority estimates it needs 15 new staffers immediately. Under the current budget shadow in Albany, that probably isn't likely to happen right away. So Little is sponsoring a bill that would allow new businesses to obtain a temporary permit to sell alcoholic beverages until the Liquor Authority can act on its application for a license.

What an immense amount of sense this makes.

To thwart the aspirations of a small business by wrapping it in stifling red tape is to extend New York's justifiable reputation for interfering in commerce to the detriment of everyone.

The economy is robbed of a potentially thriving business and the tax revenue that goes with it; the public is robbed of another entertainment venue; and prospective employees are robbed of an outlet for their skills and enterprise.

How is the economy to grow in an atmosphere that permits such government interference? The government instead should be looking for ways to enhance a new business's chance of succeeding.

The simple truth is that few restaurants can succeed without being able to serve alcoholic beverages with meals. Nicola's opened several years ago in downtown Plattsburgh after a successful presence in Lake Placid, and, while there may be many explanations of why it failed to catch on in the city, its chances were certainly not enhanced by the delay in obtaining a liquor license.

Some incipient restaurants have offeredbring your own bottle — as a temporary remedy for the delayed arrival of a license. Others have offered complimentary beverages. Both practices are illegal, the rationale being that they could encourage proprietors to skirt the licensing process altogether.

Speedy review of a liquor-license application is the obvious long-term answer to the problem. In the meantime, though, the temporary permit will offer relief.

We applaud Little for the insight into the dilemma and hope her colleagues in the Legislature and the governor will follow her lead.