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Aldermen crack down on online bottled water sales, even as virus-driven shopping sprees continue

Ald. Chris Taliaferro questioned the timing: “Folks are now buying a lot of water” because of COVID-19, he said, and that means it “looks bad when we’re increasing taxes on bottled water being shipped in.”

Bottle water for sale in a store.
Some people have been stocking up on bottled water, as they prepare for possible quarantines due to the coronavirus outbreak.
AP file

Consumers are stocking up on bottled water — along with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and canned goods — amid fears they might be quarantined after contracting the coronavirus or that shipments may somehow be cut off.

Many of those bottled water purchases are being made online, allowing Chicago consumers to dodge the city’s five-cents a bottle tax.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Finance Committee agreed to close that legal loophole along with the one that has allowed online liquor buyers to dodge the city’s sliding scale of liquor taxes.

City Comptroller Reshma Soni told aldermen the “online market has surged considerably for purchasing” water and booze and it’s only fair the city “tax online shipments coming into Chicago to make sure we are at a level playing field with all of the local businesses who do pay those taxes.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) questioned the timing of the crackdown.

“Folks are now buying a lot of water and a lot of supplies because of what this country and other countries are experiencing with COVID-19. Are you concerned about the optics of the city raising taxes or charging additional taxes during this time period?” Taliaferro said.

“I can certainly understand alcohol. But I think the optics … looks bad when we’re increasing taxes on bottled water being shipped in.”

Soni countered that it was “not a tax increase.” It’s a “clarification.”

“The five-cents-a-bottle that we’re charging right now — local businesses are paying for it. But, if you purchase … online from a Costco … or an Amazon and they’re shipping, those companies sometimes do actually pay the tax or enforce it and some don’t. This clarification is to make sure that, across the board, we are collecting the tax so it’s fair to businesses within Chicago.”

Other taxes, fees

The bottled water change wasn’t the only mayoral crackdown approved by the Finance Committee.

Aldermen also agreed to impose the city’s 9% amusement tax on tour boats, require inter-track betting houses to pay a $1-per-person fee and get tougher on drivers who park or stand in, or otherwise encroach on, bus and bike lanes.

Currently, those tickets can be issued only if the vehicle is parked in a bus lane or bike lane. If someone drives off to avoid the ticket even as a citation is being written, the police officer or parking enforcement aide is out of luck.

The mayor’s plan would close that loophole by allowing parking enforcement aides to take a picture of the vehicle and send the violation and photographic evidence in the mail within 30 days and no later than 90 days after the secretary of state notifies the city of the identity of the owner and no later than 210 days later if the vehicle is leased.

Soni said she hasn’t calculated the anticipated increase in revenue.

“It’s more about congestion relief. We’re not looking to start ticketing people,” she said.

Bridgeport theater TIF OK’d

The long-vacant Ramova Theater, 3518 S. Halsted St.
A developer plans to turn this long-vacant Bridgeport theater into a live-music venue.
Sun-Times file

In a boon to the Bridgeport neighborhood that is the ancestral home of the Daley family, the Finance Committee authorized a $6.44 million tax-increment-financing subsidy to pave the way for the long-vacant Ramova Theater, 3518 S. Halsted St., to be converted into a live music venue.

“This will be a great catalyst for this part of the community on Halsted Street,” said Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th ), the nephew and grandson of Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors.

“We had almost 400 people come out. Never had a community meeting where it was unanimous in terms of support. It was terrific. The parking lot across the street — my neighbors who own that were planning to develop it. But when they saw this project and the impact it’s gonna have on the community, they agreed to sell their property” to the developer.

Also during the action-packed meeting, aldermen approved a series of appointments to jump-start the moribund Catalyst Fund and signed off on a $500,00 settlement to compensate the family of a 21-year-old man who died of a drug overdose in police custody after being denied prompt emergency medical care while being questioned about a 2017 robbery.