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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Welch: Pinellas should consider later last call

With a later closing time for bars in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said Tuesday evening that the county ought to discussing change the county closing time, too.

The city recently went from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. closing,times for bars and club to the joy of some of those those owners. However, city police "responded to 131 calls after 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a 22 percent increase from the previous weekend. Those calls resulted in 38 incident reports after 2 a.m., up from 23 last weekend," according to report due in Wednesday's Times.

The county should follow through with similar hours for uniformity's sake, unless Sheriff Jim Coats objects, Welch said. One bar owner complained Tuesday he's just outside the edge of St. Pete, and lost customers this weekend. "We're starting to get emails and phone calls," Welch said.

There's also the perception of extending drinking hours after Coats disbanded his DUI enforcement unit for budget cuts.

"There is that," Welch said.

Welch contends county action would create a uniform approach, although Commissioner Karen Seel recently sent a reply to a proponent that suggested the 24 cities could have the authority over bar hours.

The issue could rekindle a flare-up in 2003, when St. Pete changed Sunday sales hours and the county argued only it had that authority. The county relented, but County Attorney Jim Bennett -- then the chief assistant county attorney -- held the opinion the county held the ultimate power, according to a 2003 story in the Times:

 Earlier this month, Pinellas County attorneys challenged St. Petersburg's decision to move up Sunday hours from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m.

Jim Bennett, chief assistant county attorney, wrote that only the Pinellas County Commission has the authority to change the law because it clearly calls for uniform regulations throughout the county.

Blue laws were established as a special act of the Florida Legislature in the 1960s and adopted by the county in 1980, when Pinellas established home rule. Thus, county attorneys say, only the county commission can change it.

But this week, commissioners agreed that cities should share in changing the law. 

The story also included feedback from another player at that time and now:

"Our position is we really have no position on this issue," said Chief Deputy Jim Coats. He said the sheriff's legal counsel has reviewed the past three years and found no connection between early morning alcohol sales and crime.

"It might be nice to have some uniformity," Coats said. "But it doesn't matter to us if they start serving at noon or 10 a.m. It hasn't been a problem."

David DeCamp, Times Staff writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:36pm]


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