Dirt is set to be turned at the site of a Portillo’s fast-food emporium that has been proposed in Northwest Peoria. Construction equipment is at the ready.
Considering the establishment of a local Portillo’s is contingent upon the City Council approving a special sales tax for the restaurant, that preparation seems a bit presumptuous. But only a bit, perhaps.
It’s more than likely the council will vote next month to create a Portillo’s special service area. That mechanism will assess an additional 1 percent sales tax designed to help Portillo’s developer Willie Torchia recoup his investment. Torchia has said Portillo’s construction isn’t feasible without it.
That doesn’t mean such a move is a good idea, necessarily. But few council members want to be held responsible if the Chicago-style restaurant doesn’t open a Peoria outlet.
Or, even worse for them, if Portillo’s opens an East Peoria outlet.
The tax might be a middle ground between other downstate communities where Portillo’s opened this year. Town officials in Normal offered that Portillo’s developer $1.8 million in sales-tax rebates. City officials in Champaign offered nothing.
Technically, the proposed Peoria tax isn’t a municipal subsidy. Those who don’t patronize the local Portillo’s won’t pay the tax.
In that respect, it’s similar to a toll road. Don’t use it? Don’t pay for it. That seems fair.
But imposition of a tax on top of the city minimum of at least 9 percent might seem patently unfair to other restaurants in Peoria.
Did those developers receive such consideration from the city? Would they, if they asked?
Torchia is based in Peoria, but Portillo’s is not. If local restaurateurs Albert Zeller (Avanti’s) or the Eid brothers (One World Café) requested creation of similar areas for new or existing establishments, they should go to the front of the line, if this plan is good enough for an out-of-towner.
Then again, as legendary as Avanti’s bread has become, Portillo’s is likely to draw big crowds from the second it opens. Given Portillo’s cult-like following, many of those patrons probably will come from well beyond Peoria.
Robert Hall, an attorney for Torchia, projects Portillo’s city sales-tax revenue will be between $660,000 and $880,000 annually, exclusive of that extra 1 percent. That’s serious money at a time the city is facing serious budget problems.
But if special sales taxes start popping up all over Peoria, it could make it more difficult for city officials to consider future increases in the general sales tax. A 14 or 15 percent levy, even if limited to certain establishments, isn’t exactly consumer friendly.
The council pondered this problem in 2014, when it created a special service area that enabled Westlake Shopping Center businesses to charge an extra sales tax.
“We are setting ourselves up for a public-policy disaster,” said then-Councilman Ryan Spain, who now is a state representative.
More than three years later, Spain’s words appear no less prescient.
The Portillo’s proposal seems like a bastardization of the original intent of special service areas. Usually, additional tax money is raised in targeted areas to pay for infrastructure improvements.
Such a property-tax premium went into effect recently to fund road repairs at the Heritage Lake subdivision in rural Tazewell County.
The proposed Portillo’s plot certainly will be an aesthetic improvement over the vacant buildings that occupy that Sterling Avenue space now. The new Popeye’s fried-chicken outlet under construction up the street and around the corner probably will look better than its predecessor, too.
No additional taxes are required there.
We like Portillo’s hot dogs and Italian-sausage sandwiches as much as anybody. And we’ll probably pay a little extra to eat them here rather than travel elsewhere.
But eventually, these special assessments might end up leaving a bad taste in a lot of mouths. (N.V.)
A victory — qualified
The Aaron Schock legal saga — which has now reached epic miniseries length and "Game of Thrones" cast list complexity — saw a bit of a plot twist last week when U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce tossed out two of the 24 charges against the Peoria Republican.
It's easy to see why the defense is celebrating. Lead defense attorney George Terwilliger told Politico: "The decision is great news for Aaron and the cause of justice. The judge has agreed with us on the contested legal issues, and further factual development will show that the remaining counts cannot withstand legal scrutiny. As we said in our pleadings, the indictment is a house of cards, which has now begun to fall."
Indeed, the judge also signaled a way the defense can continue to challenge five other charges, depending upon how the prosecution conducts its case.
At issue is the degree prosecutors lean on U.S. House rules to prove their case. One of the dismissed charges was axed by the judge as too ambiguously relying upon those, in violation of the Constitution's rule-making clause.
And Bruce also provided a clear signpost for the defense on future arguments against the prosecution, acknowledging that "Defendant, a former member of the legislative branch, is being prosecuted by the executive branch in the courts of the judicial branch. Thus, the case is rife with potential issues related to the separation of powers."
But keep in mind that Schock is far from the first former legislator charged by federal prosecutors and tried in federal court. In general, federal prosecutors and federal judges seem to have been able to handle past cases without unraveling the Constitution.
The real cause for interest here is that prosecutors, as a species, are generally viewed as not being terribly sloppy. Yet a growing pile of incidents in this case suggest exceptions to the rule — and that doesn't bode well.
Essentially the judge appears to have agreed that the U.S. attorneys misled the court on whether or not grand jurors were inappropriately told that Schock wouldn't testify. He tartly chastised them for lack of specificity on which House rules Schock allegedly violated before kicking out one charge. And another dismissal seems to have been a slam dunk, as prosecutors incorrectly charged Schock with two offenses in a single count.
The Schock team has other instances of bungling that they've alleged where the full facts have not yet had a complete airing. If any of those are added to the pile, the odds against prosecutors grow.
But while prosecutors are on the back foot at the moment and the defense has some momentum, do bear in mind the volume of charges remaining. Tremendous legal skill will be required to surmount the fact that prosecutors need only one of the 22 remaining charges to stick to achieve their legal aim. (C.K.)
Chris Kaergard (C.K.) covers politics and government. He can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @Chris Kaergard. Nick Vlahos (N.V.) writes "Nick in the Morning." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3285. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.