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Demystifying city bureaucracy

Restaurateur Jesse Gomez’s plans to serve margaritas and agua fresca cocktails on the patio at his new Yxta Cocina Mexicana eatery in downtown Los Angeles are getting tangled in red tape.

The upscale restaurant has a liquor license and permission for indoor alcohol service, but slinging booze on its outdoor terrace apparently will require more than an application to amend a city permit and the $2,015 that Gomez sent to cover fees.

The check was cashed, but he received a letter a few weeks ago that said the processing status was “suspension,” he said.

“We are at a loss because I don’t know all the ins and outs and all the rules and regs. I don’t know anything about conditional use,” Gomez said. “I sell burritos.”

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To help business owners like Gomez, the Los Angeles Business Team program has geared up to demystify the municipal bureaucracy. It’s part of the city’s effort, announced by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in April in his State of the City speech, to improve assistance for small business.

The Business Team was busy during the city’s recent building boom, primarily helping developers and other businesses large and small involved with building projects. Now that the boom is over, small-business owners with a variety of problems will get more attention, officials say.

“Everybody always says small business is the backbone of the economy, and they are really struggling these days,” said Bud Ovrom, a deputy mayor and head of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. “The mayor made it very, very clear that he was going to take advantage of the slowdown in construction to put more emphasis on helping existing small business.”

The city plans to roll out its new office of small business by July 1, offering an ombudsman-type service, Ovrom said. (“Small” is a relative term. Like the federal government, the city defines small businesses as those with 500 or fewer employees.)

The Office of Small, Local and Disadvantaged Business will be headed by Linda Smith, a former executive at FAME Renaissance, an economic-development nonprofit formed after the 1992 L.A. riots. Smith will expand her duties beyond the city’s minority-business development center that she has led since October 2007.

Smith said she knows from her former job how hard it can be for small firms to find out about government resources.

“There are programs sprinkled all over the city in various, different departments,” Smith said.

“The mayor’s office has realized it’s kind of our charge to know where all these programs and resources are so we can be part of the marketing and letting the business community know.”

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She expects to coordinate efforts between business-support groups in Ovrom’s office and to improve communication with business development groups in other departments.

Ovrom’s office was part of a reorganization of the mayor’s office in January that put a higher priority on business retention and attraction. The name of his group was changed from Commercial and Residential Development to the Office of Economic Development.

In addition, the city is trying to set up a $15-million fund to make direct loans to small firms. The fund is taking longer than expected to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would provide the money.

There is already a waiting list for the loans, said Miguel Acuna, senior management analyst in the Community Development Department’s Economic Development Division.

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Yxta owner Gomez just wants to be able to serve his customers, including the Sunday brunch crowd, cocktails and beer on the patio. He even hired a consultant to help with his first application for a permit amendment and now worries that he’s facing a $7,200, year-long process to get a new permit.

“It’s a big deal,” said Gomez, who also owns El Arco Iris restaurant in Highland Park. “Summertime is coming and people are going to want to sit outside. We are going to fix it up with umbrellas and lights.”

At the Business Team, Regional Associate Michelle Cervera is starting to work with Gomez. Cervera, who covers downtown, said she can’t guarantee that Gomez will get permission to serve liquor on his terrace. But, as with any business that calls for help, she will work to clarify the status of his application -- check whether it was filed in the right place, for example -- and help untangle the process, Cervera said.

“We will have to investigate where is it at and be able to offer the business owner information on how you get back on course,” she said.

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Gomez appreciates the help.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you get three different answers talking to three different people.”

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small.biz@latimes.com

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