Restaurant fee increase on table

Owners say patrons will be hurt the most

Augusta restaurateurs aren't going to let a 10 percent rise in city licensing fees slip by unnoticed.

The across-the-board increases in alcohol licensing fees, occupational taxes and other administrative and regulatory fees go before Augusta commissioners today for approval, but only after a 4 p.m. public hearing.

The move chafes Barry Blackston, owner of downtown's Blue Sky Kitchen and Nacho Mama's restaurants and co-owner of Stillwater Taproom.

"The worst thing about the whole situation is that they wait literally a week before the bills are going out," Blackston said.

The increases, which go into effect immediately if passed, will raise the cost of an annual license to serve beer, wine and mixed drinks on premises from $3,850 to $4,235. The price to serve on Sunday, currently $1,100, goes up to $1,210.

As the city searches for revenue to fill a $9 million deficit in the 2011 budget, the increases are projected to generate only $330,000.

If commissioners approve them today, Takosushi and catering business owner Kevin Goldsmith said, restaurants will pass the extra cost on to their customers.

"They're hitting the entire Richmond County, not just the restaurant people," Goldsmith said. "These are rough times, and we're lucky to have the restaurants that we have."

The increases may even push less-established eateries under and prompt others to drop their mixed-drink licenses and simply serve beer and wine, he said.

The proposed changes also apply to regulatory fees levied on entertainment venues, taxicabs and limousine drivers and business and professional taxes based on gross receipts.

A proponent of the increases, Commissioner Don Grantham said Augusta hadn't raised the fees in four years and, in a tough budget year, has little choice.

"Nothing's free anymore in government," said Grantham, a business owner who's had to cut expenses himself lately and whose taxes will go up a few hundred dollars if the increases pass.

And unlike homeowners, businesses can pass the budget of the increases on to customers, he said.

"This way, like a sales tax, everybody pays," he said.

Grantham, finishing his second consecutive term as Super District 10 commissioner, is term-limited. He expects the increase to pass but said that if six commissioners can't agree on something today, the decision might carry over to a called meeting later in the month.

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