Restaurant owners ask utility for equity
South Lake Tahoe restaurants are asking for understanding from South Tahoe Public Utility District over two contentious issues they say threaten their survival.
Local restaurant operators want help in a program designed to reduce the amount of grease entering sewer lines.
And they say they need a break on sewer billings for outdoor seating, which carries a year-round cost despite its seasonal nature.
“You’re forcing us out of business,” said Al Nalley, who operates the McDonald’s restaurant near Ski Run Boulevard. “This is not about capacity. This is a year-round business, and during the winter you have to have adequate seating inside. But, during the summer, it’s a choice for customers whether to eat indoors under fluorescent lights or outdoors. This is Lake Tahoe after all.”
Nalley made his comments Thursday during an ordinance review workshop hosted by the utility district. His view was shared by other restaurant owners at the meeting, who said the district’s pricing structure for sewer service penalizes the restaurants for seasonal outdoor seating.
Under the district’s rate plan, restaurants are assigned one sewer unit per restroom, five units for the first 20 seats and one more unit for every 20 additional seats. A new 215-seat restaurant with two restrooms would be charged $34,000 in connection fees and pay $1,424 annually in sewer charges.
If the restaurant adds seating for 40 outdoors during the summer, it would have to pay an additional $4,000 connection fee and an annual fee of $168.
While Ernie’s Coffee Shop does not have outdoor seating, owner Bob Bruso said the district should reconsider the year-round fees for restaurants that have such seating.
“A lot of Tahoe restaurants are struggling,” Bruso said. “Being that we are a seasonal community, many businesses are slow in the off-season. Even if they’re full in the summer, penalizing them (for outdoor seating) is a big mistake.”
Bruso also asked the district to consider subsidizing South Shore restaurants to retrofit their sewer lines with grease interceptors. The district spends $500,000 a year to repair portions of its 400 miles of sewer line that become clogged by grease.
While grease poured down the kitchen sink by residential customers is also a problem, grease buildup is an acute problem downstream from the estimated 135 restaurants with inadequate grease interceptors, said Mike Adams, the district’s underground sewer maintenance supervisor.
“Most of the trouble spots are in areas with restaurants,” Adams said. “One restaurant on Cedar Avenue had problems, but when the new owners put in interceptors, the problem stopped.”
However, retrofitting restaurants with efficient grease interceptors isn’t cheap. The cost reportedly ranges from $6,500 to $64,000.
The utility district solicited the opinions at the workshop in its program to consolidate and update the district’s ordinances, said Diane Noble, the district’s customer service manager. The district’s board will review the policy recommendations offered by the public when it meets on Thursday.
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