Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Everybody – including City Hall – working to get Fife pizzeria off hot seat

Everyone likes a good citizen vs. city hall story - including many of those who work in Fife’s city hall.

The good citizen in this tale is Louie Galarza, for the past seven years the owner-manager-cook at Louie G’s Pizzeria.

In that span he has pulled music acts from around the country to the city and been a one-man fund-raising machine for youth sports leagues, food banks and - just last week - threw a spaghetti feed for a Kent kid who couldn’t get a school lunch because his family was broke.

“Louie’s an awesome community asset,” said Fife City manager Dave Zabell.

So why - does it appear to Louie - that the city has been trying to ruin his business, and his life, the past two months? That’s where the plot grows complicated.

Louie is a 42-year-old tattooed bear of a fellow who likes people and pizza. He has a wide streak of righteous indignation on the surface, a big goofy heart beating below it.

When a woman he’d hired two months ago told him her father, a former biker, was dying and his last wish was for one more motorcycle ride, Louie almost cried.

“I’d never met the man, but c’mon, his story broke my heart,” Louie said.

Two days later, calling upon a network of friends, a few dozen guys on motorcycles rode in formation, and the dying man came along in a sidecar. Louie shook his hand, hopped on his own Harley and off they went.

The man died the next day.

How did a guy like Louie get sideways with city hall? It was easy.

He walked in to renew his business license.

David Osaki, Fife’s community development director, suspects Louie ran into one of his department’s newer employees, someone who’d looked over the city codes and had an ‘Aha!’ moment.

Louie G’s is a pizzeria with a large stage and, at least two nights a week, live music.

Deep in Fife’s planning code was the requirement that any restaurant with a stage and live music needed a conditional use permit. The application process for such a permit required a $5,000 deposit to pay for city expenses and a formal hearing.

Louie heard “$5,000,” and began making frantic calls to anyone he knew who might understand what was happening to him. Almost no one did because hardly anyone, including city employees, knew that code existed.

“I know they have live music, I’m sure others in the city do, too,” Zabell said. “This is the first city I’ve worked where a CUP was required for live music, but there it was. We determined at that time, we had a problem.”

The information Louie was getting made him wonder whether he could stay in business.

“I was told the permit was $5,000 and that the deposit was another $5,000,” he said. “Then someone said they might charge me retroactively for the last four years.”

Louie did the math.

“Summer is a bad time for us,” he said. “When the sun’s out and it’s hot, who wants to order a pizza?

“I had to pay the rent ($9,000-plus), the excise tax ($5,000), payroll (nearly $6,000) and $5,000 for the hearing? All at the same time, then come up with money for the permit? It was going to put me out of business.”

Much of what Louie was told, it turned out, wasn’t accurate. There was a $5,000 deposit, yes, but normally about half that money is returned. And it’s not an annual fee - once it’s acquired, the permit remains with the property.

Even so, Louie was facing a crisis. His budget is tight, and a music business on the side (Mental Itch Records) - he discovers bands, helps develop them - is hardly lucrative. He doesn’t even make money for cover charges.

“Most places will take most of that for themselves, but I don’t touch it,” Louie said. “It all goes straight to the groups. I make my money selling pizza, pasta, beer and wine.”

Osaki was surprised the code even existed.

“Codes need to keep up with the values of the time, and I don’t know the genesis of this, but it may have outlived its use,” Osaki said. “This might be more restrictive than in other communities.”

Louie has filed his application, come up with $5,000, but can’t shake the feeling he’s about to close his doors forever.

“I came in early the other day, and I looked at the stage, thought of all the acts that had played there, and I started bawling like a baby,” Louie said.

The city put Louie’s application on hold and will now determine whether the code affecting him needs to be changed. Osaki’s department will study it, then make a recommendation to the planning commission.

If the commission agrees, it will make a recommendation to the city council. The council will then vote on that recommendation.

“On the face of it, it should be changed,” Zabell said. “In the end, this may wind up being a story about how government responded to help one of it’s citizens, not hurt him.”