Watts the Matter?

For more than a year now, the proprietors of Coconut Grove's Cafe Europa have been receiving pleading, cajoling, and downright threatening letters from City of Miami officials and attorneys. Chef-owner Bernard Lapo's restaurant, a Commodore Plaza mainstay for the past eighteen years, owes the city thousands of dollars in parking fees. Last month, after meetings and payment arrangements elicited none of those dollars, city officials got tough. The chief of the electrical section of the planning, building and zoning department sent cafe general manager Cliff L'Heureux a letter warning that in 48 hours the city would shut him down by revoking the restaurant's operating permits -- and by shutting off its electricity.

L'Heureux quickly put in a call to Florida Power & Light. After getting over their initial shock, lawyers at Dade's only electrical utility assured him that they weren't about to allow a municipality to compel them to cut off service to a customer because of a parking dispute. "The attorney I was talking to went through the roof," reports L'Heureux, who has been managing Cafe Europa since early 1993.

According to FPL officials, no local government has the authority to force the company to disconnect anybody's electricity. In fact, they're scheduled to argue just that in court today (August 31). In a case that will be heard by Dade Circuit Judge Murray Goldman, FPL is contesting a long-time Metro-Dade ordinance requiring that electrical service be disconnected whenever a tenant moves out of a commercial building. Although the Metro-Dade matter differs from Cafe Europa's situation in many respects, FPL attorneys say they are alike in that both are attempts by local authorities to usurp the utility's power of discretion.

"Basically with Cafe Europa, it's a local government trying to use an investor-owned utility to compel someone to do something on an issue unrelated to electricity," says FPL spokesman Dale Thomas. "This puts FPL in the position of being the enforcer and puts us in the middle."

From her office in Tallahassee, Public Service Commission spokeswoman Margaret Ring says that Florida law is "pretty specific" regarding the circumstances under which the state may order a utility to disconnect power: "noncompliance with or violation of any state or municipal law or regulation governing electric service."

Cafe Europa's current woes can be traced to the Coconut Grove Parking Trust Fund, which the restaurant owes $15,000. Miami city commissioners in March 1993 created the fund in order to generate money for new parking facilities in the badly overcrowded commercial district. By law, all businesses must contribute if they are unable to supply a sufficient number of parking spaces for their customers. (City officials consider the size and type of business, then calculate what they consider to be an appropriate contribution to the fund.) Cafe Europa is billed $800 per month.

But Bernard Lapo, almost 60 years old, has had trouble keeping up with the payments. The highly regarded Parisian-style cafe was heavily damaged by Hurricane Andrew, which caused Lapo to close for nine months. To make matters worse, his insurance company failed. A recent divorce sent the restaurateur's finances into a further tailspin. And business has slowed markedly for all Commodore Plaza restaurants, according to city officials. (Lapo himself was out of town and could not be reached for comment about this story.)

This past October, Lapo agreed to pay $3000 per month for four months to cover the regular monthly payment and the past due amount. An October check for $800 bounced, though, and the restaurant has made only one payment since. Cliff L'Heureux says that in March he explained the cafe's financial straits to Assistant City Attorney George Wysong and promised to try to pay at least $800 per month. But he hasn't been able to come up with the money, L'Heureux admits. (Repeated calls to the Miami City Attorney's Office were not returned.)

"Bernard and the cafe had a tremendous beneficial impact on the Grove when he opened," says L'Heureux. "He employed a lot of people and drew good Coconut Grove customers into the area. He paid tremendous taxes and trained a lot of chefs who are now working all over the area. Now times are tough and the extraordinary conditions the restaurant has been subjected to as a business make it more difficult to be concerned with paying $800 a month for parking. We need to do something to save our Coconut Grove restaurants, not put them out of business."

FPL spokesman Dale Thomas says representatives from his company have met with Miami city attorneys to make clear the utility's opposition to the city's tactics. "How they'll respond, I can't say," Thomas adds. The restaurant's own attorney has threatened to sue if Cafe Europa's power is cut off. But officials from the planning, building and zoning department say punitive actions -- including revocation of Cafe Europa's operating permits -- have been put on hold, allowing the restaurant to remain in business while the city's legal department "studies" the issue.

The Miami Code Enforcement Board will also take up the matter of the delinquent fees, according to Christina Abrams, administrator of the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office. The board could impose daily fines, "which would further add to [the restaurant's] financial burden," Abrams acknowledges somewhat wearily. "There are a few other businesses that are behind in their payments," she adds, "but nothing like a year and a half. We've tried to work things out as flexibly as possible, but they're the only ones who just haven't paid, and we can't make an exception to the ordinance just for them.


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