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Council eyes business fee issue

By: Todd Wilson, Correspondent
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Lincoln’s new mayor, Spencer Short, is worried that a recent City Council decision sets a bad precedent for the city. At the Dec. 9 meeting, council members voted to waive approximately $19,000 in inspection fees for Joanne Neft’s Persimmon Café. Short was the only dissenting vote on the matter. “I am very disappointed in the direction this has gone,” Short said. “Especially when $20,000 can mean the difference between keeping a police officer or engineer or having to let them go.” The council waived the fees for Neft based on what was seen as a billing mistake on the part of the city, according to the city’s Director of Financial and Administrative Services Steve Ambrose. Neft received the bill for the inspection fees eight months after she closed financing on her business loans and received her certificate of occupancy from the city in May 2006. Neft told the council at the Dec. 9 meeting that she was unaware that she would be billed for the services. Ambrose said Tuesday that the mistake came at a time when the city was changing its billing procedures for construction inspections. The city changed its procedures since then, Ambrose said, and he does not expect to see this kind of mistake in the future. “This is not something the city can afford to be doing,” Ambrose said. City Councilmember Tom Cosgrove said Tuesday that the decision was good policy on the part of the city. He added that the city made a mistake in failing to collect the fees in a timely manner. “Unfortunately a lesson has been learned in that we have to be more diligent in working with our businesses,” Cosgrove said. “We have to have integrity. We can’t in good conscience tell a business owner eight months later, ‘Sorry, we screwed up. You owe us more money.’” Cosgrove hopes that no more business owners come forward in similar situations. If they do, Cosgrove said he is willing to examine each one on an individual basis and correct the city’s mistakes when necessary. Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce Interim CEO Judy Bennett agrees with Cosgrove that this was a good policy decision. “How wonderful that a community will do that,” Bennett said. “It shows that it is not such a bureaucratic machine. They can do things on a case-by-case basis.” Kathy Dorsey, owner of Wardrobe, a women’s clothing store on 5th Street, believes the city was obligated to waive the fees for Neft. Dorsey said the city government is indifferent to the business community and that the city makes it difficult to obtain a business license and is slow in issuing licenses. According to Dorsey, she applied for her business license in September 2007 and did not receive it until the following January. “The city suffers from benign neglect in relation to businesses,” Dorsey said. Diana Burke, however, who has owned the Simple Pleasures restaurant on 5th Street for 29 years, disagrees with Dorsey’s assessment of the city’s relationship with business owners. Burke said that business owners “have a great opportunity” to work with City Manager Jim Estep. “Since Jim has been at the helm, it is the first time conversations have taken place between business owners and the city,” Burke said. “We’re talking through the challenges of these tough economic times. Owners need to realize it takes time to process business permits.” Burke, Bennett, Short and Cosgrove all point to the round-table meetings between business owners and the heads of the city’s various departments as a good way for businesses to voice and work through their concerns with the city. The monthly meetings are facilitated by the Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce. Short and Cosgrove agree that programs such as the round-table meetings are good city policy and foster a business-friendly atmosphere. Short and Cosgrove also said that the city has a policy of deferring impact fees for new businesses until owners receive their certificates of occupancy. Impact fees include fees for items like water and sewage service. “The impact on the city doesn’t come until those businesses are occupied so we can defer those fees,” Short said. For Cosgrove, it’s a matter of trust and integrity on the part of the city. “One of the things we have to do as a city is to have the trust of the business community,” Cosgrove said.