St. Petersburg has gained a reputation as a party spot, but it has not come cheap. Extending downtown bars' closing time an hour to 3 a.m. is taxing the city's overtime police budget. Voluntary efforts at shifting those costs to club and bar owners have not succeeded. It's time for benefiting businesses, not taxpayers, to pay the tab.
The decision to extend bar hours was an issue of competition. Tampa bars have been allowed to stay open until 3 a.m. since 2003. When the St. Petersburg City Council approved the change in May 2010, police Chief Chuck Harmon predicted that the longer hours would impact police resources. He was right. For the first time in three years the department exceeded its budget for overtime in fiscal year 2011.
For sure, three police officer shooting deaths in January and February contributed to exceeding the $4.6 million overtime budget by $60,000, or 1.3 percent. But statistics from April until October this year show the Police Department has been averaging more than 400 bar-related overtime hours per month. A January analysis done by the St. Petersburg Times of the first eight months of the closing time change found a spike in police calls and arrests from 2 to 4 a.m. on weekends.
Members of the Downtown St. Pete Nightlife Association, a group of downtown bars, restaurants, and clubs, had hoped to hire the extra officers needed to take the pressure off the department, but that effort hasn't been enough. Now Mayor Bill Foster is appropriately considering alternative means of holding late-hour, alcohol-based businesses financially accountable for the crowds they draw.
The city staff is looking at a Tampa ordinance that requires bars in Ybor City and other business districts to hire off-duty officers, based on occupants. Another feasible approach Foster is considering would establish a special city permit for proprietors who want to stay open late, with license fees covering the extra security costs. What is not an option is skimping on police in a way that could give downtown St. Petersburg a reputation of being unsafe.