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St. Petersburg leaders mull whether to make downtown bars pay for security

ST. PETERSBURG — This week city leaders will start mulling a cover charge for downtown's bars and clubs.

The City Council will get its first look Thursday at a proposed ordinance that would give the city more control over the city's bustling nightlife. The methods differ, but the goal is the same: requiring downtown clubs to hire off-duty police officers to help defray the city's rising cost of security.

It's time to share the burden of keeping downtown safe, said Mayor Bill Foster.

"We recognize that the city is benefiting as well and we'll carry our load," Foster said. "We just can't carry all of it."

• • •

The mayor said he wanted to give the council a "menu" of options that would apply only to bars and clubs downtown and around Tropicana Field.

One option: charge every establishment a flat security fee.

Another: require "midnight" permits that bars would have to obtain to serve alcohol after that time. The permit would require businesses that can hold more than 200 patrons to hire at least two off-duty officers and their own security personnel on Fridays, Saturdays and special events.

Smaller bars won't have to hire officers unless they start getting into trouble: three or more incidents involving police in a six-month period.

Bars could be fined $500 for each violation, or have their midnight permits suspended. Bars that serve drinks after midnight in defiance of the ordinance — without a permit, without the required security, after repeated warnings — could be shut down. The owners and managers could even face arrest.

"That's the big stick," said Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn, who drafted the proposed ordinance. "Obviously we don't want to go there. Our goal is compliance. But some people are harder to get there than others."

The ordinance will get its first public viewing at a council committee meeting Thursday.

"All of the interested parties and stakeholders will lobby council for what they perceive to be the best idea to handle the challenges we have," Foster said. "We're still a long way from putting something on the books. But I think there's an appetite to do something."

Previous efforts to get bars to voluntarily hire extra officers have failed. Enough is enough, said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

"The bottom line is, if they don't comply we're going to have to shut them down at midnight," Harmon said. "We obviously want to work with them. We want to make them successful. But we need them to do the right thing."

City Council member Steve Kornell agreed. The clubs had a chance to solve the problem. Now the city will have to solve it for them.

"I don't want to regulate anything," Kornell said. "But we can't afford to let one or two businesses that don't do the right thing make our downtown a place people don't want to go."

• • •

The nightlife in downtown St. Petersburg picked up in 2010 when the city pushed closing time to 3 a.m.

But the cost is falling unfairly on the Police Department, Harmon said.

He's had to dedicate too many police resources to a small number of downtown businesses at night, he said, leaving the rest of the city with less manpower during the day.

Only a handful of bars have hired off-duty officers to reduce the city's costs — and most bars don't hire any extra help.

The most recent example is Scene Premium Night Club at 211 Third St. S.

The 15,000-square-foot club is one of downtown's biggest. On Tuesdays, the club's most popular night, the place can draw up to 1,000 people, police said.

Police commanders complained that owner Richard Fabrizi had stopped hiring off-duty officers, wasn't searching patrons and wasn't doing enough about the pervasive smell of marijuana inside.

Then someone fired a gun inside the club around 2 a.m. on Feb. 8, police said, sending two men to the hospital with wounds.

Fabrizi vowed to bolster security and hire off-duty officers. He hired one extra officer the first Tuesday after the shooting, but hasn't hired any in the two Tuesdays since, according to St. Petersburg police Maj. DeDe Carron.

The club owner said it's all a misunderstanding. Fabrizi thought the city would automatically send off-duty officers. The club has to request them.

Fabrizi said he's fine with being forced to pay, saying his clubs in other cities face similar restrictions. But he favors making everyone pay a security fee.

"It should be across the board," Fabrizi said. "If you're a bar and you stay open until 3 a.m., you should pitch in. But I don't think you can say you don't have to pay just because you only hold 150 people."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg leaders mull whether to make downtown bars pay for security 03/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 12:05am]
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