‘Business owners face big fees in Bell’ (November 2)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The practice by the city of Bell discussed in this article related to a larger issue, which the reporters described in paragraph 2:

The practice, which experts on municipal law say was unprecedented and may be illegal, underscores the lengths to which Bell’s officials went to bring in revenue during the last decade, some of which went to pay the unusually large salaries of city officials.

So the issue, one which the reporters turned to repeatedly in this series, was “What did Bell do to try to increase revenues?” (Previous stories addressed Bell’s car impounding record and tax increases.) The conclusion offered was descriptive:

For at least a decade, officials in Bell arbitrarily required some businesses to make payments to the city totaling tens of thousands of dollars annually, in at least one case threatening a business owner with closure if he failed to comply, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Times. (1)

As they also often did, the reporters immediately justified their conclusion by citing “interviews and records.” And so, again, for readers the next question would become, “What sort of records and interviews do the reporters have that demonstrate their claim?”

The most common form of record referenced were conditional use permits awarded to businesses. The reporters wrote that “in some cases, merchants were directed to make thousands of dollars in annual payments as part of conditional use permits granted by the city” (5). The reporters also said they showed “some of the permits” to Dan Selmi, a professor and former state deputy attorney general.

The permits were the only form of document cited to apparently serve as evidence regarding all of the businesses the reporters said fell into the Bell scheme. But in discussing the story of one particular business, a tire shop, the reporters also referred to a check stub, a city hall memo, and a copy of “a bill saying [the owner] owed $16,250 for ‘in lieu of sales tax’ fees” (20). The more detailed substantiation offered regarding the one business did suggest that the reporters had more hard evidence for the “at least 15 businesses” they say were affected by the payments (4). But readers would have had to take the existence of this additional evidence on the reporters’ authority, because the reporters did not clarify further what sort of documents they reviewed.

Similar was the reference to “interviews” cited in the lede paragraph. The reporters cited or quoted from interviews with people involved in only one business said to be affected by the scheme — the current and former owner, and landlord, of the tire shop, and a former city official who said he consulted with Rizzo about a settlement with the owner. Although these interviews were sufficient to back up the reporters’ claims about the one business, readers would have to assume on authority that the reporters had similar evidence tucked away to justify the claim that the payments were part of a broader “scheme” (4).

What about the other parts of the conclusion — the claim that the scheme was “arbitrary,” that it netted “tens of thousands of dollars” in payments to the city, and that “in at least one case [officials threatened] a business owner with closure”?

Technically, by itself the detailed description of the tire shop’s experience was enough to justify claiming that the payments totaled more than $10,000 (28). But the reporters, again citing “city records,” said “a tire shop owner paid at least $144,000 over a four-year period,” “Another tire shop owner was required to pay $13,000 a year,” and an “auto dealer had to guarantee the city $80,000 a year in sales taxes or pay the difference” (7). Readers who accepted the reporters’ authority regarding the “records” had more than enough evidence to accept the “tens of thousands of dollars” claim.

What evidence did the reporters marshal for the claim that the payment scheme was arbitrary? They said:

There do not appear to be any city guidelines explaining why certain businesses were targeted or how officials calculated how much to charge.

In one instance, a tire shop owner paid at least $144,000 over a four-year period, according to city records. Another tire shop owner was required to pay $13,000 a year. Yet the very next permit approved by the city for an auto repair shop did not require the owner to pay any annual fees, records show. One auto dealer had to guarantee the city $80,000 a year in sales taxes or pay the difference. (6–7)

To accept these paragraphs as evidence in favor of the “arbitrary” claim, readers would need to accept an unstated descriptive assumption: that the only basis on which the fees might have been levied on businesses is by their product. Given that assumption, it sure would be arbitrary for one “auto repair shop” to have received a fee but not another. However, the reporters provided no reason to think that readers should have accepted such an assumption. In fact, the reporters provided a reason to not accept the assumption by quoting James Casso, the interim city attorney:

James Casso, Bell’s interim city attorney, said cities can levy charges on businesses or developers if “there is a clear, quantifiable loss of revenue for the city.” But city records show that the fees were levied on owners who developed vacant lots. In one case, a fee was levied when a business was simply changing ownership. (16)

So there was another possible reason besides type-of-product that might have justified levying a fee on a business: A “clear, quantifiable loss of revenue for the city.” The reporters countered Casso by saying that “fees were levied on owners who developed vacant lots. … [or] when a business was simply changing ownership.” But, firstly, there is no obvious reason why the development of a vacant lot would not result in a quantifiable loss for the city (in the form of opportunity costs, perhaps).

Additionally, Casso’s quote, the truth of which was not rejected by the reporters, provided a possible basis on which the fees assessed to some of the businesses would not have been arbitrary. The one auto repair shop might have caused a “clear, quantifiable loss of revenue to the city” in a way that the other shop did not. The reporters didn’t address this possibility one way or another. But their not demonstrating that the businesses under discussion were not charged for such a loss of revenue made it difficult for readers to accept so far that the scheme really was “arbitrary.”

That said, though, if readers assumed that the reporters would have mentioned any explicit denials by Casso, then readers could infer that the thrust of the reporters’ argument was true in that none were printed.

Finally, the claim that “in at least one case [officials threatened] a business owner with closure if he failed to comply” was simply not returned to. Readers would have had to accept it entirely on the reporters’ authority.

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