Do you have a license for that poem?

July 2, 1998

By David Trumbull

"Do you have a license for that poem?"--No, Cambridge cops are not pulling over unlicensed poets, but woe to the coffeehouse or bar that tries to hold a poetry reading without getting a $500 entertainment permit. Yes, poetry is one of the many categories of entertainment licensed by the Cambridge License Commission, a $572,585 per year city office that regulates businesses activity. Imagine the outcry in Cambridge if the Republican Congress tried to impose a tax on poetry! Well, what is the Cambridge $500 poetry "license" but a tax? And, to the one being taxed, a tax by any other name still stinks.

Since its creation in 1922 the Commission has administered rules for business engaged in a variety of activities including innholders, hackney carriages, festivals, carnivals, used car dealers, peddlers, one-day events, and even fortune tellers (who presumably are not inspected for accuracy). For every license there is a corresponding fee ranging from a few to several hundred dollars. Most residents, likely, are not aware of the many business taxes imposed by the City of Cambridge under the guise of licenses. Yet we all pay, whether as business owners or consumers.

Almost everyone agrees that some businesses, such as food service, need to be licensed and inspected. Nevertheless, the official name for this permit, "Common Victualer License," suggests to me that this law has been on the book a very long time and may be ready for review. Any guesses on when was the last time the word "victualer"--one who sells "victuals" (pronounced "vittles")--was in common usage? Moreover, it is difficult to understand why, now that we have pasteurization and refrigeration, we still need to license milk sales. Milk is food and, since the preparation, storage, and vending of food is already subject to inspection and licensing, milk ought to be covered by the food regulations with no need for a separate milk license.

Probably the most contentious of licensing requirement are those regarding alcohol. Most bars in Cambridge operate under a 1:00 A.M. closing license, which since 1985 has been the only type issued. There are about 25 of the older 2:00 A.M. licenses still in use. No new licenses are being issued for some parts of the city, such as the Central to Harvard Square corridor of Mass. Ave., so bidding for existing licenses drives up the price. Bar owners, unhappy with Commission decisions that limit their freedom to make money off the lucrative liquor trade and area residents, unhappy with Commission decisions that expose neighborhoods to noisy, unruly bar patrons both have the option of appealing Commission decisions to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. About ten percent of all alcohol licensing questions handled by the License Commission end up being appealed to the ABCC. License Commission meetings are open to the public and normally are held on the evenings of the second and fourth Tuesday in the month.

Alcohol, victualer, and milk licenses are just the beginning for many restaurants and bars. Want a juke box in your business? That will be $135 to the City of Cambridge, please. Live music, $500. Dancing by patrons, also $500. When I asked Richard Scali, Administrator of the Licensing Commission, about the $110 per board charges for dart board licenses he replied that "they [the bar owners] make a lot of money off those boards at tournaments." Why the city is entitled to a "cut" from that income I do not know.

It is no wonder that businesses facing a plethora of license fees find Cambridge hostile to private enterprise. A few years ago a bar owner who lived in Cambridge lamented to me about all the regulations and licensing requirements he had to contend with just to do business in Cambridge. He has since sold his business and he and his wife have moved out of the city. The new owner apparently knew the reputation of Cambridge for he proposed changing the name of the pub to "The Peoples Republic." Even the name change needed the approval of the License Commission!

And what of the consumers? State and federal taxes on tobacco, it is claimed, reduce the amount of smoking. If that is true, then is the City of Cambridge trying to reduce the amount of poetry heard by imposing a $500 poetry tax?. Unnecessary taxes, or license fees, result in higher prices, fewer choices for consumers, and less freedom. On this Independence Day weekend remember that our Massachusetts forefathers rebelled against a tax on tea. They rightly understood that the power to tax is the power to control--even to destroy.


Lee Street resident David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee