With the creation of a St. Charles Liquor Control Commission all but complete, the city’s next step toward resolving perceived alcohol-related problems downtown will be changes to the liquor code.
Mayor Raymond Rogina said last week he would issue a release on Monday, naming his nominees to the new liquor control commission. A ratification vote on the appointments could come as early as July 15.
A week later, Rogina expects the City Council to begin considering proposed changes to the liquor code, nearly a full year after the city threatened to cut bar hours after an August 2012 spike in alcohol-related problems downtown.
Precisely what changes the City Council would approve is difficult to say, although aldermen appear to have some general consensus on several fronts.
“As for the next step in the process, I see the staff providing us with model language as to what is defined as a bar and what is defined as a restaurant,” Mayor Raymond Rogina wrote in an emailed response to questions from St. Charles Patch.
“As always, this will be discussed in committee and brought before the council,” he wrote. “I see this beginning as soon as our next Government Services (Committee) meeting (on July 22), and hopefully moving to conclusion by the following meeting.
“There may or may not be a need for changes in classifications of liquor licenses,” he added. “I will rely on staff with input from council to craft any changes.”
Discussions Near 1-Year Mark
City officials have discussed a number of ways to better regulate bars and restaurants as they seek to rein in incidents of public urination, public drunkenness and brawling that peak from time to time. Their discussions began in earnest nearly a year ago after a surge in the number of incidents in August.
The central issue for city officials has been the “over-serving” of alcohol to patrons who become drunk, or to patrons who already are drunk when they enter an establishment and continue drinking.
Bar owners have coalesced into the St. Charles Tavern Association to implement steps of their own with hopes of heading off both the complaints and the possibility of increased regulation.
Some of those steps include setting a uniform “last call” and related measures at all member establishments, as well as instituting a “banned list” of people who have caused problems and subsequently have been barred from all downtown taverns and restaurants. The association also has sought out training for its drink servers to help them know when to cut off patrons who have had too much to drink.
Police Chief Jim Lamkin has told the council in recent months that the association’s efforts have been working, but some on the council still believe more needs to be done by the city to ensure problems will not escalate again.
No measures have been voted upon yet by the council, but some of the kinds of measures the council has discussed include:
Defining the difference between a bar and a restaurant.
Much of the discussion on this issue has focused on a definition based on gross receipts.
In many communities that take this tack, restaurants must show that more than 50 percent of their revenues come from food sales, which would require a periodic review of gross receipts. Conversely, bar revenues would show greater gross receipts from the sale of drinks.
While this method of defining the difference appears to be fairly common among other communities, some aldermen have questioned whether it will work for restaurants like La Zaza Trettoria, 5 S. 1st St., which offers patrons high-priced wines that some say can end up costing more than the meal.
The focus on firmly defining bars and restaurants is based on several viewpoints, one being that restaurant patrons are less likely to be over-served alcohol while they are eating. Food consumption while drinking is supposed to slow down the body’s absorption of alcohol.
In that same vein, discussions have noted that when a restaurant closes its kitchen for the night but continues to serve alcoholic beverages, it ceases to function as a restaurant and becomes a bar. Elected officials appear to be sensitive to this perception in light of some critics who insist St. Charles, particularly its downtown, has too many bars.
Potential changes to the citywide 2 a.m. closing time.
This options that have been discussed on this topic appear to be the ones most feared by bar and restaurant owners, for whom the 2 a.m. closing time was a concession by the city to counter the impact of a 2 percent alcohol tax imposed in 2010.
It also was an issue during campaigning for the spring City Council elections in April. That campaign saw a number of candidates, particularly in the mayoral race, adopt the mantra, “nothing good happens after midnight,” in relation to the downtown’s alcohol-related problems.
Owners have said the hour or so leading up to 2 a.m. is lucrative for them, and that imposing an earlier closing time would be reneging on the city’s concession on the alcohol tax.
Yet the 2 a.m. closing time has been cited repeatedly during discussions of alcohol-related problems. Some say the late closing attracts drinkers from communities where bars close at 1 a.m. or earlier. That potentially sets the stage for a last-call rush on St. Charles establishments by some who already may be intoxicated — as a result of drinking in another community.
One idea proposed by Rogina during the mayoral campaign he won would treat the 2 a.m. closing time as a privilege subject to annual review by the city. Establishments perceived during the annual review process as having had problems could be required to close an hour or more earlier during the next year.
An establishment still could face the loss of its liquor license — which is already in the liquor code — if found to be in violation of those conditions outlined in the state liquor statutes.
Council members also have discussed keeping a citywide 2 a.m. closing time but requiring restaurants to keep their kitchens open later, assuring patrons could continue to eat while they drink.