SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County supervisors on have approved a new sewer bill discount policy intended to help restaurants weather the pandemic, though some supervisors said the policy will help some establishments without offering any assistance to others.
The vote by county supervisors at their monthly meeting on Tuesday means restaurants that are billed directly by the sewer district for their sewer service will receive a 50-percent discount on their sewer bills in 2021. The sewer charge appears as a line on the county/town tax bills each business will receive in early January.
“A lot of restaurants are in trouble due to the pandemic,” Mechanicville Supervisor Tom Richardson said in introducing the idea last week. “Many were closed for months and many are limited to 50-percent capacity. In the next month or so outdoor dining will probably close due to weather. This is an opportunity for the Sewer District to alleviate some of the pain.”
At a special meeting on Wednesday in Mechanicville, the Sewer District commissioners agreed to the change the supervisors had requested, though with some reservations about it not helping restaurants that don’t receive a bill directly from the Sewer Commission.
“I want this to be fair to all the restaurants in the county, but we need to work on that,” said Sewer Commission Chairman Wayne Howe.
The new policy would save 78 free-standing or anchor-tenant restaurants that are billed by the sewer district an average of $2,000. But many other restaurants — ones, for example, that are tenants of shopping centers and malls — won’t see the benefit, because they aren’t billed directly. Restaurants in Saratoga Springs also wouldn’t see any direct discount, because they are billed for sewer use by the city, not the county.
Restaurants don’t actually pay a bill based on their sewage use, since most commercial properties don’t have a meter. They pay in multiples of what a single-family home would pay, based on estimates. Some restaurant owners have argued for a discount because COVID restrictions have reduced their seating capacity by 50 percent — but even if that limit were lifted, much of the public remains reluctant to dine indoors, leaving restaurants suffering from what some economists have called “demand shock.”
The new policy was approved in a 17-6 vote, with several supervisors who voted in favor saying they hope to see it expanded in the future to cover more restaurants. Richardson argued that while other ideas are worth studying, a decision is needed now because of the pressure to get 2021 budgets and tax rates done.
“If we don’t pass this resolution today, these 78 restaurants will lose out when their tax bills come out,” Richardson told fellow supervisors on Tuesday. He acknowledged, though, that he would like to see the program expanded to aid more restaurants.
The discounts would cost the Sewer District about $165,000 in lost revenue, a loss Sewer District Executive Director Daniel Rourke said the district is able to absorb by drawing money from its fund balance. The 2021 tentative Sewer District budget hasn’t been released yet, but the 2020 budget totaled nearly $25 million.
Even though more than one-third of the restaurants that would benefit are located in Clifton Park, both county supervisors who represent the town voted against adopting the policy because they think it is unfair to restaurants that don’t receive a discounted bill.
“Unfortunately only restaurants are mentioned here,” said Town Supervisor Phil Barrett. “There are many sectors of our economy that have been impacted” by the pandemic.
“I’m further concerned that only some restaurants are deemed eligible, by criteria that are questionable,” Barrett said. “It created an unfair advantage for some. … Do it right, or don’t do It at all.”
Clifton Park Supervisor Jonathan Schopf said about half of the restaurants that would benefit are chain restaurants, and was bothered that restaurants with large commercial landlords wouldn’t get the benefit. “I can’t support it,” he said.
“The problem it’s a slippery slope when we enact a policy like this,” said Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz, who also voted against it. “It doesn’t help restaurants that aren’t in the sewer district. I would like for additional time to come up with a plan that aids a greater number of businesses.”
Also voting against adoption were supervisors Eric Connolly of Ballston, Alan Grattidge of Charlton and Richard Lucia of Corinth.
At Wednesday’s Sewer Commission meeting at the sewage treatment plant in Halfmoon, Rourke told the commissioners that the district would like to expand the discount program to more restaurants, but it will require making adjustments to the way the Sewer District bills for its services. “Unfortunately we’re just not ready to do a program like that, but it’s feasible,” Rourke said.
“We want to help as many people as we possibly can,” said Richardson, who attended the Sewer Commission meeting.
The 2021 sewer rates, which will now include the new policy, aren’t yet final. The Sewer Commission will hold a public hearing on the rates at 9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, at the county supervisors’ boardroom in Ballston Spa, and may adopt the rates immediately after that. Rates aren’t final, though, until adopted by the county Board of Supervisors, usually in mid-December.
The Gazette monitored both the Board of Supervisors meeting and the Sewer Commission meeting by phone because of pandemic restrictions of public gatherings.