Local relief for bars and restaurants holding liquor licenses could be on its way by the end of the year, but more details need to be hammered out.
“What I’m hearing from the conversation is that everyone wants to do the right thing, but we don’t quite have everything in order yet,” said Rochester City Council President Randy Staver.
With a statewide four-week pause on indoor seating for bars and restaurants, council members said they’ve been hearing calls for relief efforts, some of which are tied to the city’s recent increase in liquor-license fees.
Some fees are doubling under changes passed in January after rates remained largely stagnant since 1982.
The council voted unanimously Monday to ask city staff to look at options for relief targeting liquor-license holders.
“I’d like to pass it before we head into 2021,” council member Nick Campion said, pointing to the need for more study of potential impacts cited in an email from interim City Clerk Kelly Geistler.
Geistler pointed out that an earlier relief program benefited 78 liquor-license holders with $245,850. Not all of the city’s approximately 130 eligible license holders sought to apply for funding.
Looking at a potential second program, she said fees paid by local, non-franchised restaurants that weren’t already offset by the earlier program would cost $168,000. Adding franchised hotels and restaurants would add $54,000.
The city has $171,769 in undesignated contingency funds for the remainder of the year, she added.
Council member Michael Wojcik said the numbers point to potentially subsidizing a program with other funds.
“It’s important to know that we are distributing tax dollars for the entire community to provide subsidies in some of these areas, which may very well be warranted,” he said.
The cost could be reduced with a focused approach, he added.
“I think it’s important that we focus on the businesses that are locally owned, the businesses that have complied with COVID-19 orders and have not had to be shut down,” he said. “I don’t want to see any relief extended to those who have not been part of the solution here locally.”
Staver questioned whether that would provide a legal challenge.
“If we reduce liquor- license fees for some and not all establishments, I just want to make sure we’re not getting on thin ice there,” he said.
Looking to 2021, Geistler said the city would see fewer complications with delaying fees until August.
Staver said he’d prefer more definitive action.
“I don’t want this to just be a deferral,” he said. “That just sort of kicks it down the road.”
Others said they’d like to see options to help more than just bars and restaurants, noting the recent orders by Gov. Tim Walz also closed health clubs and other entertainment venues.
“Liquor licenses are a start, but I’d like this to be more than a liquor-license program, if we can come up with something,” said council member Patrick Keane.
Council member Mark Bilderback said he’s initiated conversations regarding other potential relief.
“We all need to think about how everyone is being impacted here,” he said.
Council member Shaun Palmer said the answer might be found in the budget the council is set to approve next month.
“I think we really need to relook at our 2021 budget and see if we can make some cutbacks on that,” he said, pointing to plans to hold 10 vacant positions open while maintaining a city staff of approximately 800.
While Palmer didn’t specifically state a desire to lay off staff, that’s how Mayor Kim Norton took the reference to employees and the 2021 budget.
“I am not interested in laying off city employees,” she said. “That is not helpful to the community, either. You are just moving money from one place to another.”
She pointed to the need to support existing unemployed workers, rather than adding to the numbers.
Norton said she’s reached out to local congressional delegates to cite the need for additional federal relief funds. It was a comment shared by Walz, who said Monday he’s encouraging Congress to act as soon as possible.
Until then, he said he will roll out a proposal Tuesday for state relief for bars and restaurants throughout the state. He said the proposal includes sales tax forgiveness, waiving of state regulatory fees and food grants for restaurants to provide food to health care workers, help homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.
The effort will require legislative approval.