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Despite warnings, St. Petersburg is just now doing something about later bar hours

It was two years ago this month that St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon told City Council members that allowing bars and clubs to stay open until 3 a.m. would mean increased arrests, manpower shortages and budget problems for his department.

Three months later, the council approved the later closing times.

Eleven months later, the Times reported arrests in downtown St. Pete had more than doubled on weekend nights.

Twenty-four months later, two men were shot in a downtown club perfumed in a haze of marijuana.

My, how time flies when you're having fun. And drinking until 3 a.m.

And so now the city is fast-tracking an ordinance that will require downtown bars to hire off-duty law enforcement types to discourage patrons from shooting at each other.

In other words, they're trying to close the bar door after the drunks got out.

This kind of thing should have been anticipated in 2010, it should have been addressed by 2011, and it should be a nonissue now in 2012.

Instead, everyone seems to be pointing fingers at one another and complaining it's someone else's fault while the city's bouncers are practicing how to duck.

(Given the choice of mayor, police chief and City Council, I'd point my finger at the council. They changed the law; they should have been prepared for the consequences.)

So why the delay?

Oh, there are a couple of legitimate reasons tucked inside a whole bunch of excuses. There's the time wasted trying to get bar owners to agree to police themselves. And there was the time wasted debating which type of ordinance would work best.

But the bottom line is Harmon warned everybody what was going to happen before the law was even changed, and two years later there is still no policy in place to combat it.

So was a 3 a.m. closing time a bad idea?

Not necessarily. The later time has clearly drawn larger and younger crowds to downtown St. Pete, and that is not a bad thing. It means money is flowing, and the city's dowdy image is changing.

But, as they say, nothing is ever free. In this case, the Police Department has had to shift manpower to downtown late at night, which means slower response times to nonemergency situations throughout the day. There is also substantial overtime being paid to make sure there are enough feet on the ground.

Leslie Curran was one of two City Council members who voted against the idea in 2010, and she's not impressed with the results two years later.

"We saw what was happening in Ybor City, and now you're seeing some of the same issues in St. Pete," Curran said. "I didn't think it was necessary when we did it, and I still don't think it's necessary today.

"I think going back to 2 a.m. is something we should consider."

Mayor Bill Foster took a neutral position in 2010 but says one random shooting should not be taken out of context.

"It's been a revenue problem, but it hasn't been a safety problem," he said. "I've had my officers properly staged outside of these places. The night of the incident, they were right across the street and inside of the place within 30 seconds.

"But I'm tired of using general operating funds to ensure public safety for businesses that are profiting from being open later at night."

The day after the shooting at Scene Premium Night Club, Foster said he called the city's legal department and told them to fast-track an ordinance modeled after a similar one in Tampa. (It wouldn't need to be fast-tracked today if it had been drawn up in 2010 when Harmon first suggested a problem existed, but maybe I'm just being picky.)

The issue now is exactly what the ordinance needs to do.

Foster said part of the delay is the result of trying to come up with an idea that works perfectly for the city, the police, the bars and the patrons.

Ideally, that ordinance would charge permit fees for businesses serving alcohol late at night, and those fees would go into a fund that would pay for police presence.

But framing that ordinance was taking too long, and Foster wanted something done in the interim. So city attorneys said they are studying a half-dozen ordinances from around the state and should have a first draft for the council to see by the end of this month or early March.

This ordinance would likely require bars that have larger crowds to hire off-duty law enforcement officers for both inside and outside the building.

The idea makes sense, but it would have made even more sense if the city hadn't waited until last call to put in the order.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Despite warnings, St. Petersburg is just now doing something about later bar hours 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 7:27pm]
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