Weeks earlier, Islam had basked in delight as the restaurant opened a 24-seat expansion. Now the Council, which operates the sewer and water lines in the seven-county metro area, had sent him a $24,000 bill for this added burden to the infrastructure.
"I had no idea about [the charge]," Islam tells City Pages. "When I presented my plans to the city, no one mentioned it. Looking back, I doubt I would have expanded. I'm already in a high-risk business in which cash flow is so important. I guess I was lucky because they gave me an installment plan to pay it off."
The Sewer Availability Charge is imposed for each new connection or increase in use of the Metropolitan Disposal System. It requires no new pipes or adjusted hook ups. It's just paper pushing, yet there's no other fee as large for small businesses in the Twin Cities.
Ann and Randy Erickson have owned Keen Eye Coffee just north of Roosevelt High School for almost three years. The couple wanted to add outdoor seating on the sidewalk out front. It would've consisted of six chairs and three small tables. They kiboshed the initiative after learning it would require a sewer charge of about $1,500.
"We're a relatively new business and our biggest-ticket item is $5.50," says Ann. "That's selling a lot of $5.50 coffees."
The same can be said for Marla Jadoonanan, who's owned Marla's Caribbean Cuisine for 10 years. Jadoonanan bid goodbye to a nursing career to follow her heart and create deliciousness for the people. She was looking to add two to four outdoor tables to her 32-person capacity restaurant. She also eyed the possibility of a 1,000-square-foot expansion, in which 20 seats would be added — and five new jobs.
She called the Council for months, trying to find out what the charge might be. She's yet to receive an answer. Meanwhile, she learned about what happened at Gandhi Mahal. Her expansion plan is dead.
"If I was to receive a $24,000 bill," Jadoonanan says, "it would make me shut my doors. I'm a small business owner. I invest every dollar back into the business. I could understand if this was a fair fee, but it's not. It seems disproportionately high for small businesses like me."
Based on her own research, Jadoonanan guesstimates the charge would cost her no less than $2,500, but it could be well north of that. She can't afford the risk.
Gandhi Mahal's expansion led to 15 new jobs and amped his cash flow, which he needed to pay the Council.
"I appreciate them allowing us to pay in installments. I do," says Islam, who negotiated down his total bill to $12,000. "But it's still a lot of money for any small business."
Repeated messages left for Toni Janzig of the Council's sewer program were not returned.