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Downtown leaders concerned alcohol ordinance proposal unfairly targets restaurant/bar owners and employees

David Prusakowski

Rome leaders are still evaluating a couple of ordinances that could result in the suspension or nonrenewal of alcoholic beverage licenses.

They would apply to holders who have run up huge debts to the city, whether in the form of unpaid property or business taxes or parking tickets. Debts would include, but not necessarily be limited to, fees, fines, civil penalties, excise taxes, occupational taxes and utility bills.

One ordinance states that is it is “in the best interest” of the city to require all applicants and alcohol license holders to “timely pay” all debts and obligations owed to the city.

“No person shall be issued a license to sell or manufacture alcoholic beverages, whether by the package or for consumption on the premises, if that person has any overdue debt or obligation to the City of Rome,” it states.

If a person accumulates $1,000 or more of overdue debts to the city, whether due to a single debt or multiple debts, his or her alcohol license may be automatically suspended until the licensee completely pays off the debt.

In the event someone reaches the $1,000 threshold, the city clerks’ office would be required to make written notification to the licensee with the type and amount of debt. Failure to pay the overdue debt or obligation within 14 days of the notice would result in the immediate suspension of the license.

The licensee would be able to request a hearing before the Alcohol Control Commission.

A companion ordinance would similarly apply to individual servers who have alcoholic beverage sales permits issued by the city.

It stipulates that any person is ineligible to serve or sell alcohol under state law until overdue debts are satisfied.

The Alcohol Control Commission declined to even make a recommendation on the proposed ordinances, indicating that they felt they had didn’t really have anything to do with the actual sale of alcoholic beverages. Chairwoman Monica Sheppard said she didn’t think the ACC should be a tool to enforce activity that didn’t relate to package or by-the-drink sales of alcohol.

The Rome City Commission, however, accepted the ordinances on first reading last Monday, a month after the ACC declined to take action.

Board members expressed some concern that the ACC had passed on the matter and decided to send the ordinances to the Downtown Development Authority for discussion this past Wednesday.

“We’re struggling with what to do with repeat offenders,” City Manager Sammy Rich said.

He referred primarily to downtown business owners and employees who have run up huge parking fines, some of them well in excess of $1,000.

DDA Executive Director Aundi Lesley told her board that, when she prepared a package to go to municipal court, it applied to between 12 and 15 people.

Parking Manager Patrick Van Der Horn said that, even after court was over, some of the same people were getting tickets again several days later.

While not running up four figure fine totals, Lesley’s report for the first quarter of 2021 indicates that the Downtown Parking Enforcement License Plate Reader registered more than 8,000 reads of vehicles on the street that had parking permits for one of the decks or lots.

People with permits for off street parking spaces received a total of 220 tickets for improper parking during the first three months of the year.

Rich stressed to the DDA that this is not a revenue issue for the city, but something aimed at helping free up parking for customers across the Broad Street community.

Still, DDA board member David Prusakowski said he’s not sure he likes the idea of a “parking enforcement” ordinance targeting strictly the restaurants. Someone with a clothing boutique could owe the same amount of fines or fees but not face similar enforcement activity

DDA Chairman Bob Blumberg suggested that the city look at other means of enforcement, like booting or towing repeat offenders once they reach a certain level of unpaid fines.

Blumberg acknowledged that the fine structure — which was adjusted just a couple of years ago to hit repeat offenders harder — had not seemed to impact certain people. He also cautioned that booting vehicles does not “send out positive vibes” to out of town visirors.

The alcohol ordinances and the possibility of stepped up towing enforcement is something that will be addressed by the parking committee when it meets Tuesday. Anyone interested in attending should contact downtown@romega.us.

Biden quietly reversed Trump’s ban on worker visas. Will it help or hurt the US economy?

WASHINGTON — President Biden has quietly relaxed one of former President Trump’s signature immigration bans against foreign workers with skills that U.S. employers say they cannot find in the domestic labor market.

Many pro-immigration advocacy groups had urged Biden to abolish the ban on so-called guest workers as soon as he entered the White House. Instead, without fanfare, Biden waited almost three months and let the ban expire at the end of March as scheduled.

Politically, Biden’s approach avoided an open fight with his allies in organized labor, which has long opposed guest worker programs like the H-1B and, for lower-end seasonal help, the lesser-known H-2B. Unions contend that such visas allow companies to bring in foreign workers at lower wages and benefits than they would have to offer Americans.

But beyond the political calculations, letting the ban lapse also tacitly acknowledged another reality: Closing the door to foreign workers may ultimately hurt the national economy and undercut Biden’s goal of making the U.S. more competitive globally.

The vast majority of research studies have concluded that worker visas and other more open-door immigration policies have little or no negative effect on native-born workers or the economy. In fact, many economists believe the evidence shows that foreign workers on balance have a positive impact.

Not only is an aging American population producing fewer workers, but foreign workers also spend a high proportion of their earnings in the U.S., offset the negative demographic trends and help meet the need for particular kinds of skills.

Some guest workers have advanced technical, business or other skills. Others at the lower-paying end of the spectrum do work that employers say many native-born Americans don’t want to do, including jobs in agriculture, seafood processing, and service industries such as landscaping and care for the elderly.

Although critics challenge many of those points, employers say that during the last year of the pandemic, as travel restrictions further crimped the pipeline of foreign workers, many companies still struggled to fill such jobs despite a sharp rise in overall U.S. unemployment.

Last June, Trump blocked the entry of H-1B visa holders, many of them skilled tech workers, and tens of thousands of other foreign nationals working on temporary or seasonal basis, such as gardeners, summer camp staff and au pairs.

The ban, which exempted farmworkers, was based on coronavirus safety and preserving jobs for Americans as unemployment spiked.

But for tech companies such as SevenTablets Inc. in Dallas, whose business slowed in the early months of the pandemic but has been booming since last summer, the inability to bring in workers under the H-1B program meant it simply had to put some projects on hold, said its chief executive, Kishore Khandavalli. The 50-employee firm currently has five openings for software engineers.

It’s not for a lack of trying, he said. “We have recruiters, not only in-house. We utilize third-party recruiters. We advertise the heck out of all the job boards. We’re not leaving any stone unturned.”

Khandavalli has another, larger tech company in Vermont, iTech US, where as many as a quarter of the 500 employees have H-1B visas. He said he often found foreign tech talent at American universities, but that pool isn’t what it once was either.

“The gap in demand and supply is widening,” he said of workers in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

Many researchers agree the core problem is that the United States is not producing enough graduates with the skills needed for many STEM jobs.

Last month, there were more than 1 million job vacancy postings in computer occupations alone, with the unemployment rate for those workers even lower than the 3% rate before the pandemic, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy.

“Blocking immigrants is not actually the solution if you want to get Americans these jobs,” said Britta Glennon, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The solution is to educate Americans in these areas, and right now not enough Americans are being educated in those areas.”

In fact, Glennon said that her research had found that restrictions in the H-1B program not only did not increase employment of native Americans but also had the effect of sending jobs abroad.

“For multinational firms, if they can’t hire the labor that they need in the U.S., they’re just going to hire somewhere else, in another country,” she said, adding that Canada has been a particular beneficiary.

Trump’s ban also temporarily shut off a wide range of temporary and seasonal work for foreign nationals, including students. “One of the clear things we saw was that there was not some sudden rush of natives working in these occupations,” said Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Beyond that, he said, there was another less-recognized, unintended consequence of closing legal entry to these jobs.

“There’s been a steady flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border since last April. And part of it is due to these visas, most of them being closed to people, and there’s still demand for (these workers) in the United States.”

The demand is only expected to grow bigger as the American economy gains steam this year, thanks to more vaccinations and a wave of federal economic relief money.

At the moment, however, the nation’s unemployment rate is at a relatively high 6%, and the economy has some 8.4 million fewer jobs than in February of last year, before the pandemic.

Defenders of Trump’s ban continue to insist it was the right policy.

“It was a huge mistake at this point in time to open up a pipeline of temporary foreign workers,” said Robert Law, a top immigration policy official in the Trump administration and now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“If you allow temporary workers to come in and take jobs, you’re going to cripple any form of economic recovery.”

Labor and other critics of guest worker visas say employers sometimes bring in workers at substandard wages and terms, and that U.S. companies wouldn’t have so much trouble finding domestic help if they provided better pay and benefits. Employers argue that they can only offer so much if they want to stay in business.

With travel restrictions still in place in many countries, it’s unlikely large waves of temporary workers will be arriving anytime soon.

But amusement parks, resort areas and other tourist destinations that in past years have relied on seasonal foreign workers are now scrambling to try to fill their labor needs.

“As we look at this summer and fall, we really think that in particular the tourism industry is going to be impacted by a pretty severe labor shortage,” said Ali Noorani, chief executive of the National Immigration Forum.

“And the question will be,” he said, “can the H-2B program move fast enough to keep these businesses afloat?”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Maine, which is heavily dependent on tourism, recently called for a doubling of H-2B visas from the annual cap of 66,000 to meet the labor needs of inns, restaurants and other hospitality businesses.

In the past, as many as half of the H-2B visas were used to bring workers, primarily from Mexico, to do various kinds of landscaping work.

Steve Glennon, president of Cagwin & Dorward in Petaluma, Calif., one of the larger landscaping firms in the West, said the domestic labor supply was so tight and competitive that, in 2018, he had one of his employees fly down to Mexico and line up 30 workers who could come in under the H-2B program.

Glennon spent about $30,000 in program fees and other costs, but not a single one of his would-be workers was awarded a visa in the program’s unpredictable lottery system.

Still, he said he would apply again if the process was easier and he had a better shot at succeeding.

Today Glennon’s business is roaring back, and he expects it to reach 2018 levels or even better, but he’s not sure how he’s going to meet his labor needs.

He says he pays gardeners, maintenance crew leaders and others working in the field $18 to $19 an hour. Almost all of them are Latino.

“The native-born don’t want those jobs,” said Glennon, 60, who himself started as a gardener more than 40 years ago. “They just don’t.”

Consumer Confidential|
Why spend billions for Ancestry’s DNA data if you don’t plan to use it?

Shirley Ruge has long been fascinated with exploring her family tree. At one time, that meant many hours spent combing through records at courthouses and libraries.

For the last 20 years or so, the Indian Wells resident has focused her research on Ancestry (a.k.a. Ancestry.com), one of the leading sites for genealogical sleuthing and DNA analysis. The company says it has 18 million people in “the world’s largest consumer DNA network.”

“You find heroes in your past and you also find villains,” Ruge, 87, told me. “It’s fascinating.

“I’m one of six kids,” she said. “I want to know where we come from, and why we’re all so different.”

Lately, though, Ruge has had other questions on her mind.

Such as: Why was Utah-based Ancestry purchased in December by the New York investment firm Blackstone Group for $4.7 billion?

And: What does Blackstone plan to do with that treasure trove of genetic data, which is highly sought after by drug companies, insurance firms, employers and others?

“I don’t believe for a second that Blackstone bought Ancestry simply because they love people,” Ruge said. “You don’t spend $4.7 billion unless you have a plan to make it back, and more.”

Blackstone says she and others needn’t worry.

“We invested in Ancestry because it is a clear leader in its industry with a digital subscription business that has continued to grow significantly,” said Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the investment firm with more than $600 billion in assets under management.

“Blackstone has not and will not access user DNA and family tree data, and we will not be sharing this data with our other companies,” he told me. “To be crystal clear, doing so was never part of our investment thesis — period.”

End of story? Perhaps not.

I reached out to a number of bioethicists to ask if they believed Ancestry users could rest easy knowing their genetic data will remain under wraps. Nearly every one of them scoffed at the idea.

“That’s utter nonsense,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University. “I don’t believe it for a second.”

“Users of direct-to-consumer genetics products should always remember that they are voluntarily giving their DNA to a company whose goal is to make money from that DNA,” observed Laura Rivard, a biology professor at the University of San Diego.

Amy Lynn McGuire, a professor of biomedical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, said that regardless of what Blackstone says now, “that could change with changes in leadership and as new business opportunities present.”

It’s naive to think Blackstone would spend almost $5 billion for an asset it has no plans to exploit, said Ellen W. Clayton, a professor of law and health policy at Vanderbilt University. “Why else would they buy it?” she asked.

Again, Blackstone says it aims to recoup that huge investment through Ancestry’s subscription fees, which run from $25 to $50 a month.

But nearly every expert I spoke with cited the partnership announced in 2018 between Ancestry rival 23andMe and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

Glaxo purchased a $300-million stake in 23andMe, giving it access to the genetic data of the company’s 12 million users.

The genealogical site GEDmatch, which played a role in catching the Golden State Killer, was acquired in 2019 by San Diego’s Verogen, a company with links to crime labs.

“It’s important to understand that, at some point, the purpose of all these DNA companies is to monetize that data,” said Katherine Drabiak, an associate professor of public health at the University of South Florida.

“The entire business model is offering a service people want and amassing a huge amount of data,” she said. Ancestry’s new owner ignoring the value of its genetic database “would fly in the face of how these companies operate.”

Gina Spatafore, an Ancestry spokeswoman, said the company “does not sell or share customer DNA data with insurers, employers or third-party marketers.”

“Ancestry’s commitment to these robust consumer privacy and data protections remains unchanged under our new ownership,” she said.

The company’s privacy policy makes similar declarations.

But deep within the text I found a provision that says Ancestry reserves the right to use people’s genetic information for “scientific” research, which is vague enough, and broad enough, to cover any number of possible scenarios, such as collaborating with drug researchers.

The company also claims a right to use people’s DNA for “building new products and services, including services related to personal health and wellness.”

Blackstone holds stakes in nearly 100 companies, including insurers, drugmakers and research labs. Bloomberg found language in the company’s regulatory filings indicating it plans to “package and sell data” from companies it acquires to develop new sources of revenue.

Blackstone’s Anderson told me this disclosure “does not apply to our flagship private equity funds through which we invested in Ancestry.”

Which is to say, yes, the company plans to mine data from its various holdings but, no, not in Ancestry’s case.

To which the experts I spoke with responded with healthy skepticism.

“The money with companies like Ancestry is in the database,” said New York University’s Caplan. “A savvy company like Blackstone knows that.”

He and other bioethicists were quick to note that existing federal medical privacy laws don’t apply to genealogical sites. These companies are basically free to do as they please with people’s genetic data.

“A lot of these sites are a bait and switch,” Caplan said. “They offer some interesting content, but what they’re really after is your DNA.”

So take the industry’s assurances of genetic privacy with a grain of salt. These companies operate largely in the shadows and are limited in their activities almost solely by the honor system.

Blackstone’s website touts the firm’s extensive partnerships with “the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology industries,” and a focus on developing new drugs “with the lowest clinical risk and the highest probability of success.”

I’m with Ruge. Spending $4.7 billion for Ancestry and its massive database of genetic information only makes sense financially if you plan to make use of that info.

Blackstone says it will make its money back by selling lots of new subscriptions.

Both Ancestry and 23andMe laid off employees last year amid slumping demand for home DNA tests.