Service Availability Charges
In late July, I had the opportunity to weigh in on an important but complicated issue that faces small businesses in my ward. It has to do with a seldom-discussed but very expensive fee called the Service Availability Charge. This fee is imposed by the Metropolitan Council (but collected by the City) on new businesses that will generate an increase in sewer waste. It amounts to more than $100 for every new chair a restaurant puts in place.
I believe it's a sensible way to ensure that, as we grow as a region, we continue to fund our sewer infrastructure. However, the Met Council has, within the last few years, begun imposing this fee at its full value to new outdoor seating. This does not make sense to small businesses in my ward, and it doesn't make sense to me. A new seat in an indoor space will be used year-round, in all types of weather. On the other hand, a new outdoor seat will be used only in the warm months of the year, and typically only in non-inclement weather. No one wants to sit in a sidewalk cafe in January, or in a rainstorm. This places an undue burden on new outdoor seating, and that's not in keeping with the City's goals. Sidewalk cafes and outdoor seating areas are good for safety and neighborhood livability, and we'd like to see more of them.
The City raised these concerns, and the Met Council has responded to them. They have put forward a proposal to charge only half of the standard SAC fee for new outdoor seating. This is a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it doesn't go far enough. These seats simply won't be used half as often as indoor seats. At their public meeting, I stood with small businesses and spoke for a reduction to a more reasonable 25% fee. I also spoke against a provision in their proposal that would charge the full fee to any outdoor seating that is in any way physically covered.
We'll see what impact my testimony, along with the statements of elected officials, staff and business owners, has on the Met Council's decision on this.