Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - The benefits of Iowa City bars going 21-only

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 5, 2009.

Boy, we caught a little glimmer of hope during the July 28 Iowa City Council meeting.

George Etre, owner of Etc., told the council that he was thinking about making his bar 21-only because Iowa City is now including the rate of Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age charges as one of the criteria for evaluating liquor license renewal requests. Since February, if a bar has an average of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit, then the police department automatically recommends the council deny the license renewal request.

The council, of course, still has the option to ignore the police department's recommendation -- and, say, recommend a six-month probationary license with stipulations. But bar owners probably shouldn't take the probationary license unless they are confident they can get their establishments into compliance with the law in those next six months. Otherwise, the owners actually hurt their chances with the state -- or the courts -- if they choose to appeal a council's eventual denial.

That's why Etre told the council he was interested in the possibility of going 21-only.

"I don't feel comfortable telling you to extend my liquor license for six months or a year or however long, knowing that I have to get PAULAs under 1.0 because there's so many variables involved in the PAULA that are out of my hands, that I can't control," Etre said during the July 28 meeting. "For me it would be easier to just be a 21-bar, not deal with 19- and 20-year-olds, not have to worry about PAULAs."

Denying a license renewal because of PAULA rates, after all, is very different than denying a license renewal because of the number of alcohol sales to minors. The one is a sin of commission in which a bar employee is clearly violating the law. The other is a sin of omission in which bars may have done nothing wrong -- other than to provide a locale in which underage people can enter and get their older friends to buy alcohol for them.

By holding bar owners accountable for the underage drinkers in their establishment, the city may have altered the local economic environment just enough that more bar owners -- like Etre -- will be looking to negotiate with the council to go 21-only voluntarily.

Those negotiations, however, need to take place before a bar is out of compliance. That's why we think the council was right to vote 6-1 to deny Etre's renewal request -- despite a modicum of improvement between February and June -- and to vote unanimously to deny the request from the Fieldhouse bar.

The council's decision isn't the last step in the process, however; it's just the beginning. Bar owners have every right to appeal the decision to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division, and if they don't like the answer there, to appeal the decision through the courts. It could take years to reach a final conclusion -- years in which the bar gets to keep its license and keep operating.

Yet appealing the decision has economic consequences in that it dramatically increases a bar's cost of doing business. Bars could see their dram shop insurance rate go through the roof, or they could lose their insurance altogether -- and thus have to go out of business. Plus, bar owners will have to pay what's sure to be hefty fees to get lawyers to argue their case before the city council, the state board and the courts.

Of the 110 liquor licenses in Iowa City, police say that only six are in jeopardy of having a rate of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit for the past 12 months. Although many of those 110 licenses belong to restaurants, the vast majority of bars in Iowa City are still able to comply with this very reasonable standard.

We highly encourage bars that are unable to comply to think about the benefits of going 21-only.

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