City of Fernandina Beach considers taxing new restaurants per seat

Old businesses grandfathered in, do not have to pay tax

By Scott Johnson - Reporter , Elizabeth Berry

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. - The City of Fernandina Beach is considering refining a city impact fee so they literally tax seats in every new restaurant in the city.

The idea is that every customer who sits down in a restaurant, uses water and sewage, so the seats inevitably cost the city of Fernandina Beach money.

That's why the city wants to change their impact fee regulations, to make sure that every new restaurant that comes into Fernandina pays for every available seat.

Chris Garcia said when he opened Hola Cuban Café in Fernandina Beach a few years ago, he was relieved to find out that he would be grandfathered in from a seat tax, or impact fee.

The cost, Garcia said, would have been hundreds of dollars for every seat in his business. Garcia said he wouldn't have been able to afford more than 10 seats.

"I'll tell you what, if we would've had to pay that it wouldn't have driven us off, but would've driven off customers because we would've only had 10 customers at a time. I wouldn't have been able to afford that," said Garcia. "Our most expensive sandwich is eight bucks. No way I would've been able to sell thousands of sandwiches to get seats outside."

Restaurant owners already have to pay money for every seat in their restaurant, but the city wants to change the specifics of those impact fees.

The pending legislation would basically change the definition of a "seat" in new Fernandina Beach restaurants. With the change, new restaurants in Fernandina Beach would be required to pay $273.50 per seat per year, for every 24 x 24-inch seat in the restaurant.

"We've got into a couple instances where picnic benches have been installed and are adding definition as something that's 24 inches in diameter that a customer in a restaurant could sit," said Fernandina Beach City Manager Joe Gerrity.

Another reason for the change, Gerrity said, is because some restaurants were getting away without paying any of the impact fees. A restaurant called Timoti's in Fernandina Beach wasn't paying water or sewage fees for their customers, because at Timoti's customers don't get a seat, per se. Instead, they order from a counter and sit at picnic tables.

The city is now adjusting how it does business to make sure that when people open up restaurants in Fernandina, they have to pay for anyone who uses a 24 x 24-inch seat.

"Do you think this is harming the ability to attract new businesses?" asked Channel 4's Scott Johnson.

"No sir, they've been here 20 years and this is thriving community, and it has not impact anybody's ability to open restaurant or thrive here," said Gerrity.

The seat tax wording still has not been finalized by the city. The change just passed its first reading during a recent commission meeting. The change will have to go through a second reading and then a vote by the Fernandina Beach city commission.

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