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Bar hours extension nixed

By Staff | Mar 29, 2016

The extended bar hours experiment met a slow death after nearly three hours of discussion at Monday’s City Council meeting. Council voted 5-3 against extending the temporary ordinance.

A one-year pilot program passed by council in 2015 expires on April 3, giving the two active participating South Cape establishments one last weekend to stay open two extra hours until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

Representatives of Dixie Roadhouse and Backstreets Sports Bar and those in attendance hoping to see council extend the program another year left disappointed. Citizens voiced their concerns on both sides of the topic during the public hearing that followed presentations by Police Chief Bart Connelly and Economic Development Director Dana Brunett.

Those presentations showed an increase in arrests in the South Cape area identified as the city’s entertainment district. While the increase was less than anticipated, Connelly said that at closing time he was pulling officers from other areas of the city to help deal with intoxication and other disturbances that arose downtown.

In a separate resolution, Connelly was asking council to approve hiring/reinstating four officers and one supervisor to deal with the extended bar hours activity.

“Whether this passes tonight or not I won’t continue to pull officers to work downtown, I will use a detail of five officers,” said Connelly. “I will use them on overtime if necessary.”

The five officers requested would spend 30 percent of their time patrolling the South Cape on the weekends and the other 70 percent of their time on general traffic safety. Cost attributed to the bar hours was estimated by the city at just over $114,000 the first year. Overtime costs were not compared or expressed.

The deciding factor ultimately was the additional cost to the taxpayers. Council members Rick Williams, Jim Burch, Jessica Cosden, Rana Erbrick and Marilyn Stout cast the votes that pulled the plug on the ordinance.

Brunett told council that while there have been 69 new businesses move into the South Cape area since the bar hours were extended last year, he could not attribute all of that to the hours extension.

“South Cape’s 4 a.m. participants showed a 23 percent increase in sales and other businesses reported 106 percent increases,” said Brunett. “It seems to create an environment and opportunities for adding employment. There are signs the bar activity is having a positive impact, but I can only say it is a contributing factor, not THE factor.”

Burch attributed much of the economic increase to the recovering economy in general.

“You can spin the numbers any way you want,” said Burch. “If we had been told a year ago that the bar hours would require five additional cops we would not be here talking about this tonight. It would have been voted down. I’ve been against this from the beginning and it went through because the city was not paying for it, not one nickel – it’s in the minutes. Now we’re OK with paying some for this? We had an agreement, now we’re breaking that agreement.”

Mayor Marni Sawicki also balked at the cost of five new officers.

“I’d rather have this hiring discussion at budget time in three months, not mid-stream,” Sawicki said. “The 84 calls for service over 78 nights for nine months amounts to about one extra call per night.”

Councilmember Richard Leon argued that the additional businesses moving into South Cape would help pay the cost through tax receipts.

“We are subsidizing the Lee County Sheriff’s Office on the beach for patrolling spring break right now because it is a destination,” said Leon. “The extended bar hours made South Cape a destination, but the overall crime rate in Cape Coral actually went down.”

After the bar hours extension failed to pass, City Manager John Szerlag withdrew the companion resolution to hire five additional police officers.

Five other public hearings following the bar hours discussion received unanimous approval from council in quick succession.

One ordinance sought to amend the zoning map from residential to institutional for the property occupied by Island Coast High School to make the zoning conform to the Future Land Use of the 53-acre property which is suitable for public facility development.

The other four resolutions dealt with designating property associated with the Utilities Expansion Project in the North 1 and 2 zones for the purpose of constructing lift stations to service the city water, wastewater, and irrigation systems.

Council meets again on April 4 in Council Chambers with a special workshop meeting scheduled for April 6 to discuss the Seven Islands and Northwest Cape development plans.