Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Press Herald

Council abolishes unpopular seat tax on Old Port bars

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer © Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. :ap -->
Friday, April 6, 2007

LIQUOR ORDINANCES
APPROVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL

City liquor license fees will increase July 1 to pay for additional police patrols downtown and tighter liquor enforcement throughout Portland. New fees have yet to be set.
Downtown bars with both alcohol and entertainment licenses must be at least 100 feet apart, door to door. Existing bars that violate this rule are grandfathered, but their licenses cannot be transferred to new owners.

Patrons must be age 21 or older in bars with after-hours entertainment licenses, which allow them to stay open after 1 a.m., when alcohol service must stop. Patrons of after-hours establishments that don't serve alcohol must be age 18 or older.

Portland is dumping a controversial seat tax paid by Old Port bars and requiring all city businesses that sell alcohol to cover the cost of increased enforcement, including extra police patrols in the city's best-known entertainment district.

Starting July 1, establishments that have licenses to sell alcohol, including stores, will begin paying higher fees for the privilege.

The City Council passed the new funding plan late Wednesday, along with measures to increase the distance between downtown bars and to keep teens from mingling with adults in after-hours nightclubs.

Councilors said the higher fees will pay for additional downtown police patrols, as well as stepped-up liquor enforcement throughout the city after dozens of establishments were cited for selling alcohol to minors.

Fifteen bars and stores were cited for selling alcohol to people under age 21 during a sweep of 42 Portland establishments last weekend. Portland police enlisted two volunteers, ages 19 and 20, to attempt to buy alcohol.

They made a similar sweep on Feb. 24 and March 3 with two different volunteers, ages 18 and 20. In that sting, 20 of 35 establishments sold alcohol to the minors.

"There's a lot more we could and should be doing," Councilor Edward Suslovic said Thursday. "It's clear we need to dedicate some resources to enforcement citywide."

The state does not have personnel dedicated to enforcing liquor laws.

The new ordinances will replace the 11-year-old seat tax and a related cap on the number of Old Port nightclubs, which is 24. Both have seen council scrutiny and public criticism. The changes evolved from the recommendations of a task force that was appointed last year.

At that time, the council was under fire for increasing the annual seat tax on Old Port nightclubs from $4.50 to $15 per seat. The goal was to raise $61,000 per year to cover the cost of additional police coverage, especially on busy summer weekends.

The council's finance committee will figure out how much money is needed and how much license fees should be increased, said Councilor David Marshall, public safety chairman. The cost of a liquor license currently ranges from $360 for wine only to $1,950 for a Class A lounge or bar.

The council will consider the higher fees as part of the city budget proposal to be voted on May 21. The annual cost of Old Port patrols alone could increase license fees as much as 22 percent, Marshall said.

The seat tax applied to establishments that sold more alcohol than food. As a result, some restaurants, pubs and bars were excluded from the seat tax and the cap, even if they hosted bands and dancing at night.

By increasing the cost of licenses, restaurants and any other establishments that sell alcohol will contribute to downtown patrols and citywide liquor enforcement.

In addition to the fee increases, the council decided that downtown bars with both alcohol and entertainment licenses must be at least 100 feet apart, door to door.

The distance rule applies to bars in the area between Franklin Arterial and State Street, and from Congress Street to the waterfront, Marshall said. It replaces the cap on nightclubs by focusing on any bars that provide entertainment, including restaurants that have bars and provide bands or recorded music for dancing.

Existing bars that violate this "dispersal rule" are grandfathered, but their licenses cannot be automatically transferred to new owners, he said.

The council also decided that patrons must be age 21 or older in bars with after-hours entertainment licenses, which allow them to stay open after 1 a.m., when state law mandates that alcohol service must stop. After-hours entertainment licenses previously allowed patrons age 18 and older.

"There's a lot of concern about 17- and 18-year-olds going into a bar with 30- and 40-year-olds at that time of night, whether or not alcohol is being served," Marshall said. In addition, patrons of after-hours establishments that don't serve alcohol, such as coffee houses, must be age 18 or older, he said.

The council voted 6-3 on ordinance changes related to the distance between bars and license fees, with councilors Cheryl Leeman, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue opposed. The council voted 7-2 on the ordinance changes related to after-hours patrons, with councilors Suslovic and James Cloutier opposed.

Reaction among alcohol license holders was mixed.

"I think the council did a great job," said Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney's Pub on Fore Street and chairman of the Nightlife Oversight Committee. "I'll have a license fee that's higher next year, but I'm glad to pay because I think it's fair and it makes sense."

Others believe that aiming the fee increase at businesses that sell alcohol, in the Old Port or elsewhere, is wrong. Some say the cost of liquor enforcement should be part of the regular police budget and shared by all taxpayers.

"I still believe it's a general-fund issue," said Steve DiMillo, an owner of DiMillo's Floating Restaurant on Commercial Street. "If it wasn't for these businesses, there wouldn't be an Old Port. We're already paying for police protection, and this cost should be part of that."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
kbouchard@pressherald.com

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