Bar owners forced to pony up thousands each month for heightened police presence on Jefferson Street’s most boisterous nights are challenging LCG on its ‘special’ levy.
By Heather Miller
“So far, in my research, there’s no other city where a levy like this exists.”
It’s a talking point that sticks out for Lafayette attorney Daniel Stanford, the lawyer for the owners of four downtown bars whose self-proclaimed civil disobedience is headed to federal court to challenge Lafayette Consolidated Government’s fix for late-night Jefferson Street.
Established in 2009, the Special Law Enforcement Levy was crafted to defray the cost of additional police officers and resources downtown on weekends, also putting an end to the long-standing — and illegal — practice of bar owners hiring off-duty Lafayette Police officers and paying them in cash.
The 16 bars included in the levy are billed based on occupancy, with Karma paying by far the most at roughly $5,000 per month.
The federal lawsuit the bar owners filed in December against LCG has been in the making for months as a handful of bars have stopped paying the fees, prompting LCG to impose the serious — and what could be permanent — penalties established for bars that fail to pay their share of the LPD-run security detail.
LCG has suspended for a full year the liquor licenses of B.E.D., Karma, The Rabbit Hole, Bootleggers, Shakers and the now defunct Guamas after the bars were cited three times for nonpayment. The suspensions are on hold pending the bars’ appeals before the City-Parish Council, which hasn’t set a date to hear the appeals. Nitetown is also appealing a three-day suspension for one missed payment.
But if the City-Parish Council upholds LCG’s license suspensions and the bar owners don’t prevail in federal court, a one-year hiatus from downtown could mean a permanent removal from Lafayette’s central business district.
In 2003, the City-Parish Council, in response to concerns from the Downtown Development Authority over the outburst of bars opening along four blocks of Jefferson Street, enacted a zoning ordinance that made bars a non-conforming use downtown. The ordinance states that if a bar loses its liquor license and the building remains vacant for a year, or if the business opens as something other than a bar, that site can never again breathe life as a bar.
The largest bar in the district, Karma stopped paying its nearly $5,000 monthly fee last
“From the bars’ perspective, you have no negotiating power if the other side says, ‘You don’t like it, we’ll pull your liquor license.’ In the permit application, there’s nothing about a bar levy or police, then they come in and say your liquor license is tied to the levy,” Stanford says. “The city has had a lot of bargaining power. The bar owners started looking at this and realizing they were captives. The city will just put them out of business.”
LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley is quick to counter that putting bars out of business “is not the motive behind the penalty,” but one afterthought that lingers amid the escalating bar levy fight is City-Parish President Joey Durel’s very public assertions following a security levy increase in 2009: “I think we have too many bars downtown.”
“All of this was negotiated with the bar owners, and that’s what nobody is saying,” Stanley says. “I don’t doubt that there’s not another policy like this in the country. This wasn’t just done and pulled out of thin air. They were very heated and emotional meetings, hours-long meetings, all held in cooperation with the bar owners. They made it clear ... they wanted a police presence.”
The cost of the downtown detail has almost doubled since 2008, up from $248,914 in that year to $484,702 in 2011. In November 2009, months after bar owners began paying the monthly levy, LCG eliminated the monthly cap of $1,500 per bar, which considerably increased the amount of money bars like Karma and Nitetown were footing for what bar owners claim is a service they already pay for through sales and property taxes.
The Lafayette Police Department declined to comment on how the detail is organized and the number of officers working downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, citing law enforcement strategy that’s exempt from public record.
As of Jan. 9, downtown bars collectively owe LCG more than $100,000 in payments.
CHANGE OF HEART?
When City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin introduced an ordinance in December to repeal the special bar levy downtown, the council was split 4-4 (former Councilman Sam Doré was absent for the vote), effectively killing the proposal with a tie.
But Tea Party-favorite Andy Naquin is replacing Doré on the council this year, and if his stance on the levy is anything close to the votes of conservative councilmen Jared Bellard and William Theriot, both of whom voted in favor of repealing the levy, reintroducing the proposal could be a game changer.
“You have at least half of the council recognizing that the levy is improper,” Stanford says. “I think more of them, off the record, might agree. If the city declares a neighborhood as a high-crime area, do we charge the neighborhood a special levy for protection? Initially, when they proposed the levy, there was no empirical data to show that a larger police presence downtown was necessary, when contrasted with the way it was done before. If you look at the ordinance, it says prior to doing this you need studies, data. They just made it up and said we need more cops down there, and we’re going to make the bars pay for it.”
Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft acknowledged in a recent council meeting that business may be slower at some of the downtown establishments these days, though he points out that the streets are no less crowded and raucous than they were when the detail began.
Bars, like other downtown businesses, also pay additional property taxes to help fund the Downtown Development Authority. It’s unclear exactly how much bar owners are assessed for downtown development; DDA deferred the question to the Lafayette Parish Assessor’s Office, which was unable to calculate an exact figure by press time.
Stanford is hopeful that LCG won’t revoke any of the downtown bars’ liquor licenses until the pending federal lawsuit is settled. But City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert counters that the lawsuit is broader in scope and deals more with the constitutionality of the levy — not the suspension of the liquor licenses.
|Police Chief Jim Craft|
If the City-Parish Council denies the bar owners’ appeals and upholds the suspension of the licenses, Hebert says the owners would likely have to sue LCG through state district court to have the decision overturned.
“The bar owners really don’t want to sue the city,” Stanford says. “They’re willing to work with the city and reach a compromise that works for everyone. The bottom line is that security will be handled. We all want security downtown. We want people to feel safe. The bar owners want that and the city wants that. Hopefully we can work through this together and find something that works for everyone instead of something that just works for the police department.”
LCG is willing to go back to the drawing board and revisit the issue, officials say — and it’s also prepared to argue the levy in federal court if it comes to that.
“There is nothing that would prohibit the council or anyone from blowing out the levy and having the government — the taxpayers — eat the entire amount of the levy,” Stanley says. “The other alternative would be to tell Craft, ‘No, you have to cut your overtime in half.’ But I’ll say publicly, that’s an unwise decision because I’m not the police chief, and we need to let the police chief be the police chief; he needs the manpower that he believes he needs to have proper enforcement. And I think if you look at the numbers both citywide and what’s happening downtown, the fact that Lafayette’s crime drops and its population increases is not something you’re used to seeing in a larger city. So something right is happening.”
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue.
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