ST. PETERSBURG — When the city pushed bar closing time back to 3 a.m. 18 months ago, city officials and bar owners predicted that it would mean a boon for businesses that serve alcohol.
And it has been. Downtown St. Petersburg has become a destination for hip crowds that used to spend their weekends in South Tampa or Ybor City.
But Mayor Bill Foster says that success is costing the city too much money in police overtime to keep that bar scene safe.
He has directed the city staff to come up with a proposal for a new ordinance that would require bars to hire more off-duty officers to offset the city's rising overtime costs.
Foster's decision comes several months after a consortium of downtown establishments announced it would start hiring off-duty officers to help patrol downtown and ease the city's burden. But the mayor said the efforts haven't been consistent.
"We tried the nice route, the noncompulsory route, but that's not sustainable," Foster said during a City Council workshop this week. "It's not working."
Tim Finch, the city's budget director, said officials budgeted about $4.6 million for police overtime for fiscal year 2011, which ended in September. The department spent about $60,000 more than that, a 1.3 percent increase.
The Police Department this week could not provide exact figures about how much of that overtime has been spent patrolling downtown on weekends. But this was the first time in three years that the department exceeded its overtime budget.
City officials think downtown's bar scene has been a major factor in generating police overtime, but the police response to the shooting deaths of three officers this year contributed.
Still, Foster said something needs to change. If the bars won't hire more off-duty officers more often, then the city may have to make them do it.
"I know they're making money," he said. "I want them to make money. … I've got to come close to breaking even on this, though."
Members of the Downtown St. Pete Nightlife Association, which formed in April, admit that things haven't gone as smoothly as they intended. Some bar owners have said they are willing to chip in, said David Marshlack, owner of Bishop Tavern & Lounge. Others haven't.
"The problem you run into is there are so many personalities," Marshlack said. "It's just hard to get all these guys involved. It's hard to get everybody to contribute. You have these smaller bars that aren't willing to contribute and they really should be."
Marshlack said his bar often hires extra off-duty officers.
Association president Brendan McDowell said the group has hired two extra officers for four hours on Fridays and Saturdays since May.
"We want to get more on board," McDowell said.
Foster said he hopes to have a proposal before the end of the year. He has directed the staff to start by looking at a similar ordinance in Tampa, where bars in Ybor City and other business districts must hire at least two off-duty officers based on the number of occupants.
The mayor also suggested requiring bars to pay for a special permit to stay open late.
"I think a license may be a viable way to handle the extra funding they need," Marshlack said. "That might work better."
Regardless of the cost, Foster said the city won't cut back on patrolling downtown.
"I want to have a thriving, safe downtown," he said. "We cannot afford to have a bad reputation. I've got to staff it no matter what."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.