Walter Clay, owner and chef of Rae’s Coastal Cafe, went before the Augusta Commission this week to voice some concerns about the city’s suggested changes to Augusta’s alcohol licenses, including a proposed 10 percent fee increase.
After holding three public hearings in July regarding the changes, members of the city’s Planning and Development Department were surprised to find that not one single business owner had attended the meetings.
While Clay told commissioners that he actively participated in previous discussions about changes to the alcohol licenses about four years ago, he insisted that he was completely taken off guard by these recent suggestions.
“I didn’t know anything about it this year,” Clay told commissioners, adding that many of his fellow restaurant and bar owners were also totally surprised by the proposal.
The ordinance changes proposed raising alcohol fees by 10 percent, creating a new kind of hybrid restaurant designation and allowing bars to be open on a Sunday that falls on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
The proposed changes to the ordinance would also allow liquor stores to sell on every holiday except Christmas.
Clay said most restaurant and bar owners were primarily concerned about the surprise 10 percent fee increase.
“In general, it is not that we are opposed to the city doing better in the revenues being collected,” Clay said, adding that most restaurant and bar owners would understand if there was a specific need for additional funds. “We are always happy to participate.”
However, he admitted it is “always easier not to have increases,” particularly if they are unexpected.
Clay felt that the business owners could probably accept an increase in fees if they were given proper notice in the beginning of the year.
“If something like this is going to happen, don’t pull it from our profits as we are trying to close out our year and hopefully make a little bit of money in a business that is generally going to operate at a 10 percent margin,” Clay said. “If there is going to be an increase, it would be nice to know that at the beginning of the year.”
That way restaurant and bar owners could plan for the increase, he said.
“Give us a heads up,” Clay said.
By increasing the licensing fees by 10 percent, the city was expected to generate an additional $144,000 a year, said Rob Sherman, deputy director of the city’s development division.
The last time Augusta increased the alcohol license fees was in October 2011, he said.
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason asked why the additional revenue was needed from the proposed 10 percent increase in the alcohol licenses.
“This $144,000 may not seem like a lot,” Mason sarcastically said. “Certainly up on this commission, we’ve blown a lot more (money) than that. But the fact of the matter is, when you put that on the backs of the small business owners, it does become a lot of money.”
For those extra fees, Mason asked what “additional services or standards” would the restaurant and bar owners receive.
Sherman admitted that there would be no additional services provided to those paying the increase in alcohol license fees.
“It’s a tax,” Sherman honestly said. “That’s the answer.”
For that very reason, Mason said the 10 percent increase was unjustified.
“I can clearly see that is a tax more than a fee,” he said. “That’s really where I had my issues.”
Another proposed ordinance change, which was inspired by regulations in Savannah, was the creation of the hybrid restaurant designation, which would allow a restaurant to change its status, transitioning from an all-ages restaurant into a 21-and-over club after 9 p.m.
The proposal would also allow qualified restaurant that received the “hybrid privilege license” to then stay open to either 2:30 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the day of the week.
Mason also had concerns about the fact that the Planning and Development Department was looking to Savannah to make changes to Augusta’s ordinance.
“Sometimes we have got to be careful with comparing ourselves to other places,” Mason said. “Savannah is a tourist city. You can just about fall out of Savannah and fall into a bar and every bar is packed on a Monday, as well as it is on Friday or Saturday. They are making money hand over fist.”
Therefore, fashioning Augusta’s ordinance after Savannah’s regulations may not spell success for the Garden City, Mason said.
“So it is not a fair comparison to say, well, because Savannah is doing it, we ought to do it,” Mason said. “We don’t have that type of business like that. We would like to get there, but putting our tax on our bar owners may not get us there.”
In the end, Augusta commissioners voted 8-2 to approve the proposed changes in the alcohol ordinance without the 10 percent increase.