ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - The pandemic has taken a serious toll on small businesses, including restaurants. But one St. Louis restaurant owner says it's the city department that's making it all much harder, when they're just doing everything they can to survive.
Yaquis owner Beckie Lewis says the pandemic has been painful for their small business.
“When the weather got more warm, we thought, 'How can we make this work?' and here we are, trying to make it work,” she said.
They decided to throw open the curbside window, close the street and get creative just like so many other businesses. The city, she said, seemed supportive, waiving the fees normally needed to shut down a street.
“The city is actually going to pay us to do something cool, that's awesome,” Lewis said.
Until, not long after they started back in the summer, they were told they owed big.
“It literally just said total due $685,” Lewis said.
She was shocked.
“We had $400 in our checking account,” she said.
Turns out, the fee was coming from the St. Louis Treasurer's Office, the parking division, a fee to rent out three parking meters on Iowa Street. They are meters that Lewis says rarely have paying customers anyway.
“They can't collect their $2.30 they normally get from these meters, so now they are going to try to get their 20 a day from businesses around here,” she said.
It's a big blow, she says, to their small business.
“We cried. It’s been an emotional time for all of us restaurants, small businesses and any little hiccup throws a wrench in our plans,” Lewis said.
They turned to their Alderwoman, Cara Spencer, who says it's problematic.
“Not only should we be doing everything we can to help some businesses make it through this pandemic, but the reality is our small local businesses drive the sales tax for the city and without them staying afloat, the city itself will be suffering,” Spencer said.
The Treasurer's Office waived a portion of the fee, the refundable deposit for any potential damage to the meters, but Lewis has still been paying hundreds of dollars to rent out the meters.
“We make it work like the true south city way, but it’s just real difficult,” she said.
It’s a similar story for the businesses in the Central West End, paying to rent out their meters for the St. Louis eatery, which has been welcoming outdoor diners for weeks.
At a recent parking commission meeting, it was made clear that times are allegedly tight for the ticket people, too.
Treasurer Tishaura Jones suspended parking operations in the city from March to June at the height of the pandemic. But without sporting events, conventions, even normal business downtown, the usually financially flush parking commission say they will be nearly $5 million dollars below their projected budget for next year. The Parking Commission, in response, approved a $5 million line of credit.
News 4 wanted to know exactly how many tickets have been written this year, but we were told only reports from January and February were available.
News 4 also wanted to interview Treasurer Jones, but her office declined our repeated requests.
“I am hoping we can find a way out of this situation, because based on the City Counselor's opinion, the contract is not enforceable,” said Alderman Jeffrey Boyd at a Streets Committee meeting in June.
Some aldermen have questioned a contract with a campaign donor Jones signed in April.
It guaranteed the parking operator Hudson and Associates be paid a set dollar amount of hundreds of thousands, even though parking operations had been suspended in March and it’s unclear how tickets have been written since operations started again.
“I am actually paying for a service we are not getting,” Lewis said.
Lewis says she was told some of meter fees would be for signage to let parkers know to steer clear.
“No one still has put a sign on a meter but me, I do,” she said.
News 4 asked the Treasurer's Office if they would waive all the fees for Yaquis. A spokesperson sent a statement saying,
"As it does no one any good if businesses go under, we have shown ourselves willing and open to conversations with other neighborhoods to agree to waive the deposit as a support to help surrounding businesses during this time."
But Lewis says she's still paying. The fees, she says, are making it all that much harder to keep their business going.
“If we didn't have these concerts we would be in financial distress, and the concerts are nice,” Lewis said.
News 4 checked other dining districts, like the Delmar Loop in University City and Clayton, and neither city is charging restaurants a parking meter rental fee to use street parking right now.
News 4 told the treasurer's spokesperson we wanted to ask about the Hudson contract. She pointed to a recent state audit, which was critical of the treasurer's contracting process, but gave an overall good score to the department.
The spokesperson said, "Any recommendations related to procurement have already been implemented or are currently underway...in effect making whatever context about Hudson, old news at best."
But it's not old news to some aldermen who say they are going to continue looking into how that contract came to be.