SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Restaurant owners and staff showed up at a Springfield City Council meeting Thursday night to voice their opposition to a ‘dine-in’ tax as a potential solution to fill an $11 million budget deficit.
Mike Monseur, owner of Godfather’s Pizza, organized much of the opposition to the idea leading up to the Thursday night meeting with the city aldermen.
“We have an $11 million debt,” Monseur lamented. “Why? Because people are leaving this area. We need to sell our community. We need to sell our businesses. We need to say this is an affordable, great place to live. These aldermen are not doing that. What they are doing is saying, ‘let’s raise taxes to solve our problem.’ And that, we are here to say, is wrong.”
The pressure from the public was so palpable, it prompted Alderman Chuck Redpath to forcefully deny any talks were underway, even interrupting a live television reporter’s broadcast outside the city council meeting room to shout that there was no proposal on the table. Redpath later apologized to the reporter who works for another station, but insisted he knew nothing about the discussions.
“There was people out here saying that we were going to consider a dining tax and that has never been nothing that has been proposed to us,” Redpath said. “It is nothing that’s on the table.”
Redpath downplayed the reports of a potential dine-in tax as mere rumor, even though talks did occur in the mayor’s office last week.
“The alternative to the sales tax that has been brought up time and time again is the dining tax,” Mayor Jim Langfelder said. He says he has opposed the idea for years.
“Read my lips,” Redpath said. “I did not know about a dining tax and several of the other aldermen did not know about a dining tax. If the mayor knew about it and some of the aldermen knew about it, not all of us knew about it. We were caught off guard that we heard this morning that people were coming.”
Other aldermen chose their words more carefully to pour cold water on the public protest.
“There is no ordinance right now,” said Alderman Andrew Proctor from the city’s 5th ward. “There is no proposal about a dining tax right now.”
When Proctor was asked if he discussed the idea with anyone, at first he issued an outright denial.
“No,” Proctor responded. Pressed further, his story started to evolve.
“Oh, myself yeah. It’s a thought. But it’s not my proposal,” Proctor said.
Later, he confessed to discussing the idea, but still pointed out it wasn’t a fully formed proposal drafted and ready for votes.
“I have talked with other people about the hypothetical possibility of it, but it’s not a proposal or anything. It’s one of those things that you look at and look at other cities and you say they have it too. So, the question is what happens after these sales tax and telecom taxes don’t go through, what is next up for possible discussion? Those discussions are probably going to be the dining tax.”
Proctor later admitted he held private discussions with Mayor Jim Langfelder about the idea, and argued taxing discretionary spending was a better idea than a broad sales tax hike that would impact essential transactions. Proctor expressed frustration that the mayor had thwarted the idea before it could come together on paper.
“I met with some of the aldermen and we go over all of it,” the mayor said. Langfelder and the city’s budget director Bill McCarty met with a select group of aldermen last week where the mayor says he advocated for an increase of 0.25% in the sales tax, but told them would not be proposing a dining tax, a concept he pinned squarely on one of his former political opponents.
“If you want to know who’s idea it was, it was Alderman Gail Simpson’s when she was an alderman.”
Simpson ran against Langfelder in a bid for mayor in 2014 but lost.
“The sales tax covers all the retailers, all the restaurants and all of that,” the mayor said. “If you do the dining tax, it just impacts the food and beverage industry alone.”
“Anytime that you raise taxes, people tend to hold back and not go out and spend as much,” said Karen Conn, owner of Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and William Van’s Coffeehouse. “That causes reduced revenues for us which also causes reduced labor because we have to cut back. We have to cut back hours, we have to cut back giving raises and promotions. It also makes me think where am I going to expand?”
“In Springfield, we seem to always be on a decline,” Conn said. “We seem to be stepping backwards. Always doing what we’ve always done and expect that we’re going to get different results. We’ve got to stop that trend. We have got to get out there and actively promote the city so we can raise the revenues, bring awareness, bring foot traffic.”
Monseur, who says rising local taxes forced him to close a pizza shop in Decatur, says he’s concerned Springfield is following in their footsteps.
“We are sending the message, think out of the box,” he said. “Why do you think all the revenue is declining in the city? It’s because people are leaving. Businesses want to take the risk because it’s too expensive to take the risk in this community. We are here to say folks, you can take the easy road and do tax hikes and that has been a solution for many years that has shown and been proven that has not worked, or you can think out of the box and work a little harder to attract revenue.”