Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Press Herald

City considers 'seat tax' alternatives
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Portland city councilors are considering three alternatives to the so-called seat tax to pay for additional police patrols when the Old Port gets rowdy.

The city spends $61,000 for extra police coverage in the Old Port from May to September. The money comes from the controversial seat tax, which is applied to 24 bars and clubs in the Old Port that make most of their money from alcohol sales.

The annual tax is based on the number of seats per bar. The City Council raised the tax last year from $4.50 to $15 per seat.

The alternatives would have Portland taxpayers or the owners of bars outside the Old Port help to pay for police patrols.

The City Council is moving to abolish the seat tax as recommended in December by the Old Port Nightlife Task Force, which included downtown bar and business owners.

Many Old Port bar owners have said that others should share the cost of police coverage because the entire downtown district attracts people to Maine's largest city. Liquor-license holders and taxpayers outside the Old Port have said that they shouldn't have to pay for problems they don't create.

The task force recommended doing away with the Old Port seat-tax boundaries and increasing liquor license fees for all bars in the area roughly bounded by State Street, Cumberland Avenue, Franklin Arterial and the waterfront.

The council's public safety committee took up the recommendation of the task force, but was divided on how the money should be raised if the seat tax is abolished.

"All the options are on the table," said Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the three-member committee.

The committee has forwarded three alternatives to be voted on by the council Feb. 21:
  • Spread the cost among all property taxpayers. It would add less than a penny to the tax rate and cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $2 per year, city officials said.
  • Increase liquor license fees in downtown business zones, which include the Old Port, the Arts District and part of Bayside, and in the central waterfront zoning district.
  • Under that proposal, the cost of a Class A liquor license would increase from $1,950 to $2,795 per year, city officials said.
  • Increase liquor license fees citywide, including on stores that sell carry-out beer, wine and liquor. Under that proposal, the cost of a take-out beer-and-wine license would increase from $155 to $190 per year, city officials said.
  • Marshall voted to support having all taxpayers or all liquor license holders share the cost of policing the Old Port.

    Marshall said $2 would be a small fee for each taxpayer to contribute toward the overall safety of the city.

    Marshall also said he believes that convenience stores and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages in Portland contribute to the level of intoxication in the Old Port.

    Councilor Cheryl Leeman, another committee member, voted to support raising liquor license fees in the downtown business and central waterfront districts.

    "It seems to be the fairest way to approach this issue," Leeman said.
    Leeman said she believes that option would stand up in court because it would be tied to zoning districts.

    She said some businesses have threatened to sue the city, claiming that the seat tax is arbitrary and unfair.

    Leeman said she opposes the other two options because she believes that the cost of policing the Old Port should be paid by downtown businesses, and that taxpayers cannot afford to pay more.

    "They say it's less than a penny," she said. "Look at your tax bill. That's a lot of pennies we've added over the years."

    Donna Carr, the other committee member, was absent when the committee voted on the seat-tax alternatives. She said on Tuesday that she opposes the property-tax option but hasn't decided which proposal to increase liquor license fees she would support.

    The Old Port Nightlife Task Force reviewed the seat tax as it considered a variety of safety issues facing the Old Port. The public safety committee will continue reviewing the recommendations of the task force when the committee meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Room 209 of City Hall.

    Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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