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Meals tax case appealed

A former Suffolk restaurant owner was scheduled to report Friday for a 19-month jail sentence for failure to pay meals taxes but has gotten a reprieve while his lawyer appeals the case.

Jose Moncada, the former owner of East Coast Taco Co. on West Washington Street, received the sentence during a Dec. 14 hearing in front of Suffolk General District Court Judge Alfred W. Bates III.

Moncada was charged with eight counts of failure to pay meals taxes for August 2016 to March 2017. Each of the counts carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail.

Suffolk restaurateurs are required to charge their customers a 6.5-percent city tax on food and drinks served in their establishments. They hold that tax until the 20th of every month, when they are required to turn over to the city the amount due from the prior month.

If they do not pay and get too far behind, however, the treasurer’s office begins to take collection action. One of the last resorts is criminal charges.

Assistant City Attorney Kalli Jackson said at the Dec. 14 hearing that East Coast Taco Co. owed more than $10,000, plus interest and penalties. Since court proceedings started, none of it had been voluntarily paid. A bank seizure action brought in about $1,500, she said.

Moncada’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Elisabeth Culpepper, made an impassioned argument for Moncada and his wife, Jackie, who also worked at East Coast Taco. The couple has children.

“They had a passion, but the business sense wasn’t there,” Culpepper said. “They kept hoping for the next big business month.”

However, that month never came, the Moncadas testified in court.

Jackie Moncada testified that they had gotten behind before but were able to catch up when summer rolled around and business got better. They had the restaurant for three years.

“My husband has grown up in the industry,” she said. “It’s always been a passion of his.”

But the cost of doing business threatened to crush the restaurant. They paid $2,000 in rent, $3,000 to $4,000 in utilities and $5,000 to $6,000 for food every month, she testified.

During the slower months, they had to make sure their employees were paid and they had inventory to sell, she said.

The couple was still hoping to make it to the next good month when the city treasurer’s office came in on April 4 and essentially shut the business down, she testified.

“I was a first-time business owner. I messed up,” Jose Moncada said in court. “This is a dream and a passion of mine. I really do take this seriously.”

Moncada said he hadn’t paid anything after court proceedings started because he thought the court process needed to play out at that point before anything could be paid. He also said the Suffolk Treasurer’s Office refused to talk to them or cooperate.

Deputy Treasurer Keith Ainsley said that was false.

“There was a lot of things that were being misrepresented,” he said by phone after the hearing. “That has never been the policy in this office.”

Culpepper said the Moncadas have struggled financially since the business closed and haven’t been able to pay anything on the debt. Instead, every penny they make goes to keep their family afloat.

“These are not folks that were living high on the hog,” she said.

Judge Bates took the charges seriously.

“It’s not like income taxes,” he said. “These are taxes the citizens come in, they paid the tab, with a part of it to be going to the taxes, and that was repeatedly not being paid by this defendant. He was the trustee for the city, and he chose to keep it and do what they wanted with it.”

Bates acknowledged running a restaurant is difficult but added that many business owners in town pay the tax every month.

“They pay it religiously because they know it’s not theirs,” he said. “It’s not about it being hard. It’s about following the law and making sure the rules apply to everybody.”

Culpepper has appealed the ruling to Circuit Court. A new court date has not yet been set.