Businessman Jim Ervin, owner of Henry's Fine Edibles, answers questions during an Albany City Commission work session Tuesday morning. Ervin and other restaurant and bar owners complained to the commission about a planned 64 percent alcohol license fee increase that will go into effect by Jan. 1, 2015. Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard looks on. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Owners of Albany restaurants and bars took their concerns about dramatic increases in alcohol license fees to the Albany City Commission Tuesday, complaining that a new fee schedule that was adopted in May will impact their livelihood significantly.
Henry’s Fine Edibles owner Jim Ervin spoke on behalf of the bar and restaurant owners, noting that the fees built into the ordinance would amount to a 64 percent increase by Jan. 1, 2015 for establishments that sell liquor by the drink. The fees increased by $800 — from $2,500 to $3,300 — on June 1 and are set to increase by another $800 to $4,100 in 2015.
“If this increase was 5, 6 or 7 percent, none of these (business owners) would be here this morning,” Ervin said. “But a 32 percent increase this year and a 32 percent increase next year is excessive. It’s not like we can increase our menu costs by 32 percent at a time. If we did that, we’d all be out of business.
“All of us understand that there have to be increases sometimes, but I can’t imagine there’s any other business where the increases were this same percentage. This is excessive, it’s detrimental to our businesses and we’re here today to ask you to rescind or reverse this $800 fee increase to something that’s more reasonable.”
City officials said their research showed that Albany businesses were paying significantly lower alcohol license fees than their counterparts in other cities.
“We took comparable costs (of similar-sized cities) and found a midpoint,” Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said, and City Manager James Taylor added, “We put in half (of the increases) one year and the other half the next.”
Ervin said that tactic left local restaurant and bar owners to make up for the city’s failure to increase fees incrementally.
“We understand what you’re saying and why you decided to make the changes, but to penalize us by trying to catch up all at one time is unfair,” he said.
Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta said he would meet with some of the business owners to discuss a possible compromise and bring it to the commission at its business session next week.
The commission, after an extended discussion, took a non-binding vote to change its ordinance to eliminate full-service restaurants from a maximum alcohol-license cap in the separate wards. Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff noted that the owners of a planned Baja restaurant, which would locate at 2807 Meredith Drive, could not obtain a license under the city’s current ordinance because Ward V already had the maximum number of licences currently allowed.
“As it stands, a restaurant cannot obtain an alcohol license in Ward V,” Langstaff said. “If TGIFriday came in here, we couldn’t allow them a license. If, heaven forbid, Olive Garden had tried to get a license after we reached our cap, we would have had to say no.
“By removing full-service restaurants from the count in each ward, there will be room for other establishments. In fact, Ward V would drop from 32 to seven (non-restaurant establishments). And I believe the community wants all the restaurants it can get.”
The board also voted tentatively to require persons who are issued alcohol licenses to begin sales of products authorized by the license within 180 days. The license would automatically become null and void if the owner does not open the planned business within the six-month period.
The commission voted to approve Waste Pro of Albany’s proposal to manage a curbside recycling program citywide. Citizens who elect to participate in curbside recycling will pay an $8 monthly rate to Waste Pro. Five percent of those proceeds will go to the city as a franchise fee.