The Town Council voted to give three restaurants – Bistro 9, Rok Bar & Grill and Norman’s – behind on taxes or sewer fees extensions on their victualing and alcohol licenses at their meeting Monday night.
Bistro 9 and Rok Bar are both now up-to-date on their town tax payments, but the town has not yet been notified they have paid their state payroll and/or sales taxes.
Rok Bar owner Brandon Sweet told the Town Council his restaurant owed “around $6,000” in sales taxes to the state. Sweet said the summer was really rough – with the establishment losing 75 percent of its business. He attributed the drop in business to the popular summertime restaurants on Water Street and said things started to pick up again in October.
Sweet said he was “within days” of settling things with the state – ”I just couldn’t get it done" before the Monday meeting.
"I'm very concerned you've used ... your sales tax to support your business," said Councilman Mark Gee.
Council President Michael Isaacs said he was reluctant to close restaurants during the holidays.
"I'm just not sure what would be gained at this juncture in denying a license before Christmas," Isaacs said.
No one from Bistro 9 attended the meeting. According to Town Clerk Leigh Botello, the Bistro 9 representative she spoke with said "paperwork" was holding up their state certification.
Councilors voted to give both restaurants until Dec. 17 to resolve their state tax status – one day after the Council's last meeting of the year.
"Bistro 9 should be here" for that meeting, said Councilman Jeff Cianciolo.
For Norman's the problem was more complicated and divisive.
The restaurant owes more than $26,000 in sewer fees dating back to 2010 and around $10,000 in property taxes.
"How did we get in this situation?" said Councilman Brad Bishop. "With Norman's it's been a number of years. I think we need to be a little more rigorous ... going forward."
Isaacs acknowledged the town may have lost its focus last year with regard to Norman's growing sewer fee bill.
"But that's the situation we're in tonight," he said.
Town Manager Tom Coyle said he'd met with Sharon Hazard, manager of Norman's and daughter of owner Norman Harris. He said she was going to try a few things to attract business.
"I'd appreciate more time," said Hazard. "I'm sorry we're in the situation we're in."
At the Town Council's last meeting, Hazard told them her father's credit had been damaged by identity theft so he hadn't been able to get a loan to pay the sewer fees.
"My dad's been in business on Main Street for 47 years," she told the council Nov. 25. "The economy the last eight years has been tough."
Coyle's suggestion had been that Norman's pay half the debt upfront and set up a payment plan for the rest, $500 a month.
"In my mind, this is a lump sum solution," said Cianciolo.
Hazard, then, accused the Town Council of playing favorites, reminding them that three years ago a councilor had suggested the then-owner of Jigger's might be eligible for a loan through Community Block Grant program to cover the back sales taxes she owed. (Jigger's reopened with new owners in 2012.) The Town Council never acted on the suggestion, which Isaacs vehemently reiterated Monday night.
"We never voted any kind of a loan," he said. "The Council never offered it."
The Council voted to extend Norman's licenses until Jan. 14, one day after their first meeting of the new year.
"Let's see where we are in January," said Isaacs.
Councilman Mike Kiernan referred to Norman's long history in the town in expressing his support for the extension. But he, too, voiced concern.
"On Jan. 13, if you bring me what you've brought now, I'll vote against you," he said.