Are 274 liquor licenses suspended because of overdue taxes?
No, in short.
The Baltimore Business Journal's Scott Dance reported the number on a story published Thursday about Sonar's shutdown.
"Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office is holding 274 [liquor licenses] in Baltimore in suspension because of unpaid tax bills, according to a Franchot spokeswoman," Dance reported.
But that number comes from a list, compiled by the Comptroller of Maryland, that is out of date and riddled with inaccuracies.
Midnight Sun received the list Monday, but chose not to publish it at the request of the liquor board, which said it had not been cross-checked with its own more up-to-date records.
In fact, as of Monday, there are only about 50 bars and restaurants that the board has flagged for in-person reviews before their licenses are renewed, including some whose managers have said in interviews they have already received their 2011 licenses.
Every year, before liquor licenses are due for renewal on May 1, the Comptroller of Maryland sends the Baltimore Liquor Board a list of bars and restaurants that may not have paid the previous year's state sales taxes. The point is to hold up the license renewal until the bars settle their debt with the Comptroller.
This year's list, which actually included 276 bars and restaurants, named Henninger's Tavern, Corks in Federal Hill, Donna's in Mt. Vernon and Clutch in Canton, among others.
But liquor board chairman Stephan Fogleman said that while some of the establishments on the Comptroller's list may in fact be late with their taxes, it is typically inaccurate because it is not cross-referenced with the board's records. Liquor inspectors only use it as a starting guide for face-to-face reviews.
By the time the liquor board decides whether or not to renew a license, many of the business have paid their taxes already, or at least established a payment plan with the state.
While there might have been tax questions over some of those names by tax day, by Monday the board had whittled down the list to 53 names that required an in-person review by a board inspector before renewal.
The remaining bars have been ok'ed for renewal or, have already closed, as is the case with Donna's, New Haven Lounge, the Pickled Parrot, Clutch, and Taverna Corvino. While these bars may still owe taxes, their liquor licenses won't be held up out of retaliation but simply because they had no plans to re-open.
Henninger's Tavern, Corks, Birches, Midtown Yacht Club and Fells Point's Ze Mean Bean Cafe are among the bars the liquor board has flagged for inspections. But managers from these places say they have already received their new licenses, and that even the liquor board's records may also lag by a couple of days.
At Henninger's Tavern, the 2011 license is already up on the wall, and has been there since last week, said manager Kenny Vieth.
Corks was open for business on Wednesday, and should have its new liquor license on its walls by the end of the week, a manager said. Ze Mean Bean Cafe was also serving alcohol by then.
Midtown Yacht Club did in fact stop serving liquor, but Fogleman said that's the only confirmed case of interruption to a local business' liquor license because of overdue taxes.
So far the only event casualty of the hold list is a party the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild was going to have at Midtown Yacht Club Tuesday night, which was re-scheduled at the last minute when a bartender conveyed the license news to a reporter.
Fogleman described May 1 as "a day of reckoning" for local businesses, and some establishments - like Taverna Corvino and Pazza Luna - may have closed in anticipation of its tax debt. At Sonar, acting general manager said that the club couldn't stay open because its accounts had been emptied to pay taxes, and since the liquor license expired it wouldn't be able to make a profit in the future.
But Fogleman said it's too early to know how many liquor licenses will be held up because of overdue taxes. Bars and restaurants should know who is tax-compliant by next Wednesday, when inspectors should have finished their reviews, Fogleman said.
Even then, it'll hardly be more than 50.
Update: Joe Shapiro, a spokesman for the Comptroller's office, said that there were tax questions about all the names on the list when it was originally sent out in February. But that it's "understandable" the number has gone down since then as business owners update their records with the liquor board and the state, pay their taxes, or start payment plans. "That's the point of the process, for people to come in and work something out," he said. "We would hope the list is whittled down to zero."
Bars/restaurants flagged for inspection on the 2011 liquor license hold list:New John's Carryout
G&G Cut Rate Liquors
Lason's Bar & Grill
The New JT's Saloon
Midtown Yacht Club
The Hexagon Space - no license
Donna's - closed
Deep Side Restaurant & Cafe
The Sly Fox
Gilmor Pleasure Club
BPO Elks 981
Can Can Cafe
Clutch - closed
Southern Hospitality Services
Penn Street Tavern
Arch Social Club
Jolly Gents & Ladies Too
Three Corner's Wine Spirits
Pvt. William J. Buhl Post
Windsor Forest Liquors
Bars/restaurants on list with confirmed 2011 licenses:
Ze Mean Bean Cafe
Photo: Midtown Yacht Club (via). Post incorrectly stated there were 277 names on the Comptroller's 2011 license hold list. There are actually 276.