Baker revives debate over local liquor license control

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BOSTON – Reviving an effort that stalled under his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday proposed legislation that would give local officials control over the number of liquor licenses that can be handed out to bars and restaurants in their communities.

The liquor license proposal, an economic development idea that faltered in the House of Representatives after former Gov. Deval Patrick proposed it at the end of his second term, is part of a package of municipal governance reforms Baker intends to outline to “strengthen the partnership” between communities and the state.

“Some of this stuff should have been done 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, and we think the time is now,” said Baker, backed by dozens of local leaders who crowded onto the Grand Staircase to support the governor’s bill.

Quotas on licenses that can be awarded by a community require that local officials petition the Legislature for additional licenses. Mayors cheered the concept of giving cities and towns local control over liquor licenses when Patrick proposed it last year. The Senate agreed to Patrick’s plan, but the House did not and it was not included in the bill that was signed into law.

Baker acknowledged that it could take some convincing to get the Legislature to go along, particularly House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who has been cool to the idea, but he said his proposal is more narrowly focused on restaurants, and not liquor stores, than some past proposals.

“The message we got over and over again from a lot of local folks was there’s a sort of iterative relationship in downtown development between retail, restaurants and residential. Sort of the three Rs. And it’s very hard to do residential development if you don’t have restaurants and retails, and it’s very hard to do restaurants and retail if you don’t have some residential piece,” Baker said.

Baker’s liquor license reform proposal would apply to all communities except Boston, despite the desire of Mayor Marty Walsh and many on the city council to take over the licensing process as a means of spurring economic development in certain neighborhoods.

“As a community that doesn’t have a restaurant license cap, one of the few that doesn’t, it works,” Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini said.

Other cities routinely seek and win approval from the Legislature to issue licenses to new bars and restaurants, but in some cities like Somerville a boom in new development has led to increased demand. Somerville is currently seeking approval for 65 new alcohol licenses, including 15 designated specifically for new development around Assembly Square, to help continue the growth of the restaurant and bar scene that has fueled Somerville’s resurgence and helped generate additional local revenue through meals taxes.

The governor did sign a fiscal 2015 end-of-year budget bill that increased the number of liquor licenses for Boston by five to 665, and he said Monday that the capital city has traditionally been dealt with separately under state licensing laws.

The legislation, which is heavy on adjustments to municipal finance rules, will likely reinforce Baker’s image as an executive who prides himself on mastering the unglamorous details of governing. Baker described it as “200 pages of total weed-whacking.”

The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association quickly pushed back against one provision that would no longer require cities and towns to post notice of town warrants, procurements and other open meeting law notices in local newspapers, instead allowing them to be posted solely electronically in a venue of the community’s choosing.

“We are opposed to that. Putting the government in charge of publishing legal notices is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Publishing notices exclusively on government websites is not a way to get broad word out to the public about what is going on. It tends to reduce transparency,” MNPA Executive Director Robert Ambrogi said.

While legal notices are a revenue stream for newspapers, Ambrogi said they are also an important means for engaging the public with less of a risk of disenfranchising groups of people, including minority communities, who might have less access to the internet.

Lt Gov. Karyn Polito cheered with local leaders the idea of “no longer having to spend precious tax dollars on newspaper ads,” and Baker said the newspaper notice law was written before the advent of the internet.

“The fact that they’ll now have the opportunity and the ability to notice through other channels, I mean, let’s put it this way: At a minimum that’s worth a conversation,” he said.

The bill would also decrease the frequency of the Department of Revenue’s local property assessment certification process to every five years instead of every three, and would allow cities and towns to enforce the prohibition on utilities keeping double poles up for more than 90 days.

Officials said the change in the DOR property valuation process was requested by local officials, and would not limit a community’s ability to take advantage of rising property values or lead to periodic spikes in property taxes for homeowners due to the interim reassessments that local authorities must undertake.

Municipalities, under the bill, would enjoy the right of first refusal to purchase property being sold by a charitable organization or church for a non-tax exempt purpose, and would have more flexibility in how they procure construction contracts.

Administration officials said the bill is intended to update or eliminate obsolete state laws, give cities and towns more independence and flexibility in their operations, and streamline state oversight.

“The bottom line is that each of the proposals in the Baker-Polito municipal modernization act would give local officials and governments the flexibility and independence to manage and deliver services more efficiently and effectively and empower communities to make better decisions in the best interest of their citizens without having to navigate another layer of bureaucracy or unnecessary oversight,” said Orleans selectman David Dunford, the president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Other provisions would allow cities and towns to issue electronic motor vehicle citations, give local leaders broader discretion over how to spend stabilization, reserve and revolving funds, double the length of time municipalities may employ short-term borrowing to 10 years, and authorize environmental police to share boat registration information with local assessors.

“It takes the handcuffs off and makes our jobs easier,” Fiorentini said.

Since taking office, the Baker administration has made a point of trying to engage with local officials. A survey started in April yielded over 1,300 suggestions from 235 municipalities and school districts about changes state government could make to improve the operation and delivery of services at the local level.

Polito has also been criss-crossing the state to meet with local officials. Since June, 147 cities and towns have applied to the state and 71 have gone on to sign what the Baker administration has called “community compacts,” agreements between municipalities and the state to advance agreed upon goals.

Written by Matt Murphy