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Sobering Fee for Ventura Merchants

City will begin assessing sellers of alcohol an annual levy to provide additional enforcement of license regulations. Owners are divided.

November 16, 2005|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to crack down on bars, restaurants and grocers that violate their liquor licenses, the Ventura City Council unanimously approved an ordinance this week that will levy fees of up to $1,700 annually on alcohol purveyors to pay for additional enforcement.

The law, which takes effect next month, will charge the roughly 300 beer, wine and alcohol sellers in the city a yearly fee that begins at $250 and is based on a sliding scale that factors in the type of establishment, hours of operation and quantity of alcohol sold. The city expects to raise $180,000 annually from the fee.

The money will be used to commit a full-time officer to liquor patrol and to oversee public outreach programs aimed at reducing alcohol-related offenses. Ventura has the highest concentration of bars in its downtown and midtown areas of any city in Ventura County. Police have complained for years that a high percentage of their arrests are alcohol-related.

"It's not prohibition by any shape or form, but there are rules and not everyone is playing by them," said Mayor Brian Brennan. "We're trying to level the playing field."

Brennan, a career restaurateur who worked for the Chart House chain for more than 20 years, said the city wants to send a strong message to merchants that it is determined to remain a safe and attractive place for residents and tourists. Lax enforcement of liquor licenses has hurt popular entertainment areas in the past, such as State Street in nearby Santa Barbara in the early 1990s, he said.

"I have seen how an area can change when you have folks not taking responsibilities for their license," Brennan said. "Two-hundred and fifty dollars isn't a lot to pay to make sure that we've got everybody playing by all the rules."

Jason Collis, owner of Jonathan's at Peirano's on Main Street, said he appreciates the council's intent but has mixed feelings about the new ordinance. He said he expects to pay at least $550 a year.

"The fees are not something I'm happy with as a business owner," Collis said, adding that he has never had a run-in with police. "But being in the community, keeping the streets a little safer and making sure underage drinking is not going on is something positive."

Andrew Casana, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Assn. in Long Beach, said it is unfair to tax every alcohol seller for the trouble caused by a few. Instead, he said Ventura should use existing law to police those who violate their liquor licenses and put them out of business.

"If you look at the complaints, most of them are coming from the larger bars and nightclubs, but everybody has to pay for this," Casana said. "This is just a money grab. If people are doing things illegally, throw them in jail."

Councilman Neal Andrews said the idea of cracking down on illegal alcohol sales began four years ago.

"I certainly was sensitive to the concerns of the business community, but the truth is, we had some very substantial problems," said Andrews, adding that a police sting conducted in Ventura this summer determined that a third of the establishments visited had illegally sold alcohol to underage customers.

Resident Sharon Troll, who had been a coordinator for the now disbanded Partners in Prevention Coalition, aimed at keeping teenagers away from alcohol, said the new ordinance should be effective in curbing underage drinking and ensuring bars don't serve intoxicated patrons.

"If you're a good business person you won't have any trouble. If you're bad, then you need to take your business elsewhere," Troll said. "We're not anti-alcohol. It's about being responsible like any business needs to be."

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