Met Council could slash sewer fees for patios

The panel will consider a 75 percent fee reduction for bar and restaurant patios Sept. 9.

Area restaurant and bar owners who claim they’ve paid too much in sewer-system fees for outdoor seating might soon get a break.

Under pressure from a hurting restaurant industry that says a $2,000 utility charge for every eight seats is too much for underused patios, the Metropolitan Council on Sept. 9 will consider a 75 percent fee cut. The proposal came from the panel’s environment committee, which discussed the issue after a well-attended public hearing about the fee in early August.

The Sewer Assessment Charge (SAC) goes toward capital expenses for the region’s multi-billion-dollar inter-city sewer system, which includes 600 miles of massive pipe (some big enough to drive a car through) and seven sewer plants, said Jason Willett, finance director for the environmental services division of the Metropolitan Council. The system does not include thousands of miles of smaller city-operated pipe.

Charges are broken into fixed units based on sewer capacity. One SAC represents capacity for one home, which is roughly 274 gallons per day. A formula developed for restaurants and bars charges them one SAC for every eight seats, both inside and out. It’s a one-time fee paid when a restaurant is opened or redeveloped. SAC credits stay with a property, so if new seats are added, the restaurant pays the difference.

The SAC is completely separate from the city’s sewer charges — it’s all about how much potential waste the system can handle. So when restaurant owners argue their patios aren’t regularly used throughout the year, Willett said that’s not really the point.

“Even if they don’t use them at all, we build pipes and size plant capacity for the maximum they could use on any particular day,” he said.

But that argument hasn’t satisfied some area restaurant operators, who say the formula should factor in how seats are used.

“The problem is that outside seats are not additive to the bottom line sales number,” said Alan Ackerberg, Chief Development Officer for Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which owns multiple restaurants with outdoor space including Southwest eateries Figlio and Burger Jones. “Go walk by restaurants with outside seating on a beautiful summer or fall day; the patio will be full and the restaurants will be generally empty. It’s simply a displacement of diners from inside to outside.”

Ackerberg said a good patio season might stretch from May through October and bad weather and bugs foil many of those days.  

“There’s just not that many days to use the outdoor seats,” he said.

Figlio, which will soon undergo a major remodel, was recently assessed $12,000 in sewer fees for outdoor seats.

If the Metropolitan Council approves a reduced fee, Figlio and other establishments could get rebates for their payments.

The proposed 75 percent cut is based on the sewer system’s maximum capacity on rainy days, when it is the most burdened, Willett said. Patios would probably not be used much on those days, so less capacity would be needed, but there’s no exact science to the new figure.

“I’m in the awkward position of not really being able to have sort of an engineering basis to say here’s the right number,” Willett said.

Many restaurateurs are on board with the change, calculated or not.

Kevin Sheehy, owner of Café Maude, said with business slumping, he’d take any break he could get. His restaurant has a small outdoor patio, the fees for which cost him a fraction of the total build cost. But he said it would be more fair to base assessments on seat usage.

“Would I like to get a rebate? Sure,” he said. “Will I fight for it? No.”

Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots, said he would have appreciated a smaller SAC for his roughly 35-seat patio. Every bit of savings counts when starting a new business, he said, and a hefty sewer fee definitely impacts patio planning, especially for small restaurants.

“You don’t want impediments on restaurants growing in general,” he said.  

If approved, the fee change could be implemented by Oct. 1.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.