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Article updated: 4/29/2013 6:59 AM

Tavern crackdown awaits new St. Charles City Council

By James Fuller

When the new St. Charles City Council and mayor are sworn in, they are likely to approve a long-debated crackdown on overserving at downtown taverns.

That's judging from statements made by seated aldermen and during debates involving incoming aldermen. It appears the votes will be there to modify several approaches the city uses to oversee taverns and liquor licenses.

For one, the likelihood of the new council approving any new taverns downtown is slim. Aldermen agreed last week they would like to change the city code to have a better feel for whether a liquor license holder, or applicant, is a tavern or a restaurant. One way to do that would be to review sales receipts on an annual basis to see whether an establishment has made more money from food or liquor sales. Another method may involve limiting the number of seats in the bar area of a new establishment to ensure the business begins as and remains a restaurant.

During a candidate forum, incoming aldermen Ron Silkaitis and Art Lemke both said enforcement is key to ending the problems with overserving at downtown taverns.

Lemke said the key issue for him was that difficulty of determining early on if a place is serving primarily food or liquor. But there is also overserving that seems to be happening around the late night closing times.

"On one hand, food and liquor tend to be synergistic," Lemke said. "On the other hand, we've had some issues come up. It tends to be around closing. And it tends to be overserving."

Silkaitis said until the city uses a heavier hand to address the overserving, new taverns downtown are off the list of possible new businesses.

"If they don't respond to the enforcement, we take away their liquor licenses," Silkaitis said at one forum. "I won't say never, but I'd be really hard-pressed to have another bar or liquor store downtown."

Aldermen agreed this week they would also like to see better training of tavern staff to get to the heart of the overserving problem. Police suggested mandatory annual training for all staff. Random checks of tavern employees to ensure they have that training also is an option.

The most controversial issue on the table for the new mayor and council is a possible adjustment in closing times. Mayor-elect Ray Rogina noted that most restaurants in town close by midnight while most taverns take full advantage of the 2 a.m. closing time. Aldermen agreed they would like the 2 a.m. closing time to be a privilege earned by a lack of patrons appearing in police reports. But tavern owners have long decried a rolling back of the closing time for fear of losing business to Geneva establishments. It is also unclear how difficult it may be to strip the 2 a.m. closing time away from businesses that already have liquor licenses or how the council will go about bestowing the 2 a.m. privilege to new businesses.

Some aldermen have expressed an interest in limiting the number of 2 a.m. permits to just a couple of establishments. All those issues may fall under the purview of a new liquor commission. Aldermen have agreed a multimember commission, which would include appointed citizens, should be created as an advisory body to the city council.

The issue is not scheduled to come up for discussion again until mid-May.

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