It was late in 2012 when St. Charles aldermen nearly voted to roll back the closing time for downtown taverns to 1 a.m.
Instead, city officials gave tavern owners a year to cut down on police calls for fights, disorderly conduct and overserved patrons. A year later, aldermen acted Tuesday night on a more permanent attempt at a cleanup.
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Without comment, aldermen unanimously approved a new two-tiered system that will close all businesses serving open liquor at midnight unless they obtain an additional permit to stay open later.
There are several advantages to the city.
For one, permits are much easier to revoke than a license legally. Second, the permit system will allow the city to more easily distinguish the intention of a business when it applies for a liquor license.
Most restaurants in town stay open no later than midnight.
Third, the late-night permits will be an additional cost over liquor licenses and, therefore, an additional revenue source for the city.
All liquor licenses in the city come due for renewal on May 1. Restaurants or other businesses wishing to stay open until midnight will purchase only a normal liquor license at a fee of $1,200, less than half current price.
A license, plus a permit to stay open until 1 a.m., will now cost $2,000, $600 less than the cost of the current license.
A license, plus a permit to stay open until 2 a.m., will now cost $3,500, $900 more than the current license.
Mayor Ray Rogina told the liquor commission before the city council vote that the tiered system is meant to be a firm, but fair, message to downtown taverns.
"You can stay open until 2 a.m., but there's going to be a premium and a message with that," Rogina said. "It's trying to find equilibrium. There's no guarantee this proposal is going to work. I'm very much hoping to see new behavior, not something where we're rolling up the sidewalks at 10 p.m., but more responsibilities transferred to our licensees and to our citizens."
Mark Hoffman, owner of Mark's Second Street Tavern, was the only business owner to show up to hear about the changes. He told Rogina the additional permit and fee seems nothing but punitive.
"Add to that the additional 2 percent sales tax we have to pay on liquor, and it doesn't feel like we're of value to the community," Hoffman said. "We do provide jobs. We do pay taxes. We do all the things that a small-business man does."
Hoffman suggested balancing out the new permit costs by rolling back the sales tax on liquor or allowing taverns to install video gambling machines. Rogina said he could suggest those changes to the city council, but he doesn't believe they will be favorably received.
Rogina plans to meet with several liquor license holders this week to explain the new changes and get feedback.
There is a chance to amend the new law before it would actually affect businesses. One possible change already may involve special event permits, at an additional cost, that would allow some businesses to stay open until 2 a.m. for events like New Year's Eve, Fourth of July or birthday parties.