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St. Petersburg proposal would force downtown bars to hire off-duty police

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been 19 months since the City Council pushed closing time an hour to 3 a.m. Since then, downtown bars have profited — and the Police Department has paid the price.

But now the council is ready to tackle the problem by requiring bars to help pay to keep downtown's thriving nightlife safe.

City leaders asked their attorneys to draft an ordinance mirrored after Tampa's that requires businesses that serve alcohol to hire off-duty police based on occupancy.

"I just think it's the price of doing business," said City Council member Bill Dudley. "I don't think for one minute that any of the bar owners thought this was going to continue for free. But they probably wished it would."

St. Petersburg police officials complained Thursday that most bars don't hire off-duty officers — and those that do hire them don't do so regularly.

In April, some bars announced a joint venture to hire more officers. But that effort went bust, Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday.

"The cooperation between competing business owners just didn't work," he told the council. "That's why we're coming to you."

The proposed ordinance would give bar owners no choice. Businesses that don't hire extra officers would face escalating fines that would make hiring off-duty officers cheap by comparison.

"We're glad for their success," police Chief Chuck Harmon said. "But we want people who come here to feel safe."

The amount of those proposed fines was not discussed. Officials estimated that it costs about $150 a night to hire an off-duty officer for a minimum of three hours. When an establishment requests off-duty officers, the Police Department determines how many they'll need.

The council also learned the price the rest of the city is paying for downtown: The chief estimated police response times to nonpriority calls increased 20 percent in the late afternoon.

"That frightens me more than anything," said City Council member Herb Polson. "Response times are up 20 percent? That's unconscionable."

That's the result of a change in scheduling to handle the increased downtown workload. A whole shift of officers was moved back an hour so they won't hit overtime when they end their shift downtown.

Emergency, high-priority calls are still answered as fast as possible, Harmon said. But concentrating officers downtown after midnight leaves fewer available during the day to handle calls like car wrecks.

"I'm getting a lot of complaints about people waiting for officers to show up," council member Wengay Newton said. "That is a problem for me. I would welcome someone else coming in to do security and free up our sworn officers."

Bars can hire officers from any law enforcement agency. But other council members favored requiring businesses to hire St. Petersburg's own officers.

Two other ideas also failed to gain ground: Council member Leslie Curran suggested returning to a 2 a.m. closing time, and member Jeff Danner suggested adding police, which is budgeted for 545 officers.

"We just have to realize that this is the cost of business," he said. "Our authorized force from 1988 doesn't fit us anymore. If we want to have a vibrant downtown, it's going to cost us."

But Harmon said it would cost an extra $100,000 to hire, train and equip each new officer. That's unlikely to happen in a cash-strapped city whose police department recently went $2.5 million over budget.

David Marshlack, who owns Bishop Tavern & Lounge and the Central Avenue Oyster Bar, doesn't oppose the direction the council is taking. But he's against a Tampa-style ordinance. He said big bars would end up paying more than smaller ones, which also draw crowds. He favors paying a fee to stay open until 3 a.m.

"They think everyone is making all this extra money with the extra hour," he said. "But there's so many clubs and bars opening now that there isn't any extra money."

St. Petersburg proposal would force downtown bars to hire off-duty police 12/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2011 11:00pm]
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