The City Council agreed to appoint a task force to address business owners' concerns about a recent city crackdown on sign, sidewalk and parking rule violations, but the council could have a new fight on its hands for fining a restaurant owner $764.17 for making a meals tax payment two days late.




On Tuesday night, the council voted unanimously to appoint a Downtown Task Force to examine the city's sign ordinance, restrictions on employee parking downtown and use of the sidewalk.




Business owners have been told to remove items such as the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory teddy bear, the Bug-A-Boo giraffe and the Wiley's Pasta waiter statue that are illegal under the city's sign code.




Some business owners have complained about being ticketed for parking downtown when they are shopping or dining and otherwise in the area but not working. Business owners have also registered complaints for being told not to display menus outside.




Mayor John Morrison said the task force will meet weekly and fast-track recommendations for possible changes to the City Council by the end of July.




"The real goal is to make sure the city has laws that are enforceable and fair in their impact and actually achieve their intent," he said.




Also on Tuesday night, a City Council majority voted to follow a city staff recommendation to fine Se&

241;or Sam's Mexican-style restaurant $764.17 for making a quarterly food and beverage tax payment two days late.




Restaurants collect the 5 percent city meals tax from their customers and then send the money to the city.




Jim Gilbert, owner of Se&

241;or Sam's of Ashland, wrote letters to city officials asking them not to fine him for the late payment, which was due on April 30. He said he returned from a trip to find that neither a federal unemployment tax payment to the Internal Revenue Service nor the meals tax payment to the city had been mailed. Gilbert included a copy of a letter from the IRS, stating it would waive any fine, along with his letter to the city.




"When I returned, I found the meals tax check slid under some paperwork and promptly brought it to you without any idea that the city of Ashland would suggest that I owe them this kind of money for an honest oversight!" Gilbert wrote in his letter. "I am hurt and angered that the city I chose to live and do business in would try to profit so greatly from a local business person! It makes me question my decision for moving here!"




Councilor Eric Navickas tried unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow councilors to waive the fine against Se&

241;or Sam's, noting that the city is already enduring complaints about its interactions with businesses.




According to city records, Se&

241;or Sam's was 20 days late making a meals tax payment in May 2005 but was not fined. In February 2006, the restaurant's payment was two days late because of insufficient postage.




The restaurant was not fined in those instances because of a lack of city staff time to pursue the issue, even though there is no provision in the city code to waive fines, Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg told councilors Tuesday night.




In his letters to the city, Gilbert said he supports having fines in place, but only to punish restaurant owners who want to use the meal tax collections for their own benefit, not those who make honest mistakes.




The city occasionally receives late or no payments from restaurants that are in financial trouble or that fail. It has the same problem with struggling hotels or bed and breakfast inns that collect the city lodging tax from customers. The lodging tax will increase from 7 percent to 9 percent effective Oct. — under a separate council decision.




Meanwhile, Bohemia Gallery Framing is displaying a nearly life-size angel sculpture by local artist Kevin Christman through July 24.




Christman was barred by city rules from installing the sculpture in front of Soundpeace downtown because that store sells merchandise that includes angel figures. The sign side code bans three-dimensional representations of animals, figures and merchandise.




Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.




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