City votes to waive tap fees for restaurants expanding outdoor dining
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Pending a second reading and vote by Steamboat Springs City Council, restaurants that choose to add outdoor dining to their establishments due to COVID-19 restrictions may do so without paying the water and wastewater plant assessments, more commonly known as a tap fee.
Before COVID-19 hit Routt County, all restaurants were required to pay tap fees for expansion of their service areas, including expanding outside onto city sidewalks. The fees vary for each restaurant and depend both on how many plumbing fixtures a restaurant has and the size of the restaurant’s physical space.
When a restaurant applies for a building permit from the city, they pay a one-time assessed tap fee depending on their plumbing usage, but if they choose to expand in any way, they pay a second tap fee.
The city has not been charging restaurants that have expanded in response to public health orders since the pandemic began, said Michelle Carr, the city’s water distribution and collection manager, but council’s ordinance will officially solidify the change.
“We originally didn’t know how long COVID would last, but now, we see it’s going to be here for awhile,” Carr said.
However, once the pandemic ends and restrictions are lifted, restaurants owners who choose to keep their outdoor seating will be required to pay a normal tap fee.
“We didn’t think it was fair that their tap fees would have to expand as restaurants expanded due to COVID,” said Jon Snyder, city public works director. “The service area is expanding, but their usage of water isn’t.”
Council member Kathi Meyer said the move is a city effort to help struggling local restaurants, which have had to close their doors altogether, opened them again at limited capacity and are now only able to remain open for takeout and outdoor seating due to Routt County’s red level status.
“We’re trying to help businesses, and we’re looking at everything, from a regulatory standpoint, that we can,” she said. “Staff is encouraged to be as creative as possible.”
In addition to waiving tap fees, City Council plans to allocate the city’s leftover CARES Act money, between $70,000 and $100,000, to Routt County Business Relief grants for struggling local businesses.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to help the struggling businesses, and we sympathize with their plight,” said City Manager Gary Suiter. “It’s very difficult for a lot of people.”
Some restaurant owners believe restrictions, while detrimental, are nonetheless necessary.
“I get both sides of the coin,” said Barry Gruis, owner and general manager of Steamboat BrauHaus. “I don’t like it, but I do understand it.”
Gruis said his restaurant has used fireplaces and outdoor heaters and is in the process of acquiring a second tent to accommodate outdoor dining, which holds space for about 30 to 40 people.
Ultimately, Gruis said, the model is not sustainable long term, particularly in the winter months when snow begins to accumulate and temperatures drop, making outdoor fireplaces difficult to run and the thought of eating outside less appealing.
“There are a lot of people who are losing their incomes because of these restrictions,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can, but pure outdoor dining through the ski season is not a viable business plan.”
Phil Armstrong, owner of Aurum Food & Wine, Table 79 Foodbar and Periodic Table at Catamount, had different feelings about the restrictions. He said he believes restaurants are taking a bigger hit than other industries, such as retail and lodging, which are able to remain open with fewer restrictions.
“I just think this is poorly directed at the restaurant industry,” Armstrong said. “To say that the only place where spread could occur is in a restaurant is absurd.”
As an example of how restaurants can remain open without spreading the virus, Armstrong pointed to the summer months, when restaurants were open for partial indoor dining and cases in the county remained low.
“We were open with packed crowds all summer, and there was no talk of any outbreaks,” he said. “It seems like it’s fairly baseless, and it’s just sort of a dart at the restaurant industry.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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