Bars Push Back On Downtown Safety Plan

Melissa Bailey Photo The mayor asked the owner of Richter’s to pony up $5,400 a year to make the city’s clubbing district safer.

“I have a big problem paying that money,” Dieter vonRabenstein replied. He wasn’t alone.

That exchange took place at a heated meeting in City Hall. Push back from bar owners like vonRabenstein is now leaving in limbo the city’s plans to respond to the violence downtown.

A week after a man was fatally shot in a downtown parking lot after a fight in a club, Mayor John DeStefano held a meeting Friday with bar owners in Meeting Room 2 at City Hall.

At the meeting, DeStefano asked bar owners to participate in a new safety plan. The plan was to raise $300,000 from downtown bars to pay for a “robust,” 10-person bar detail. That money would pay to expand a squad of cops that patrols the Crown Street area during clubbing hours from Thursday to Saturday.

The new initiative would create a virtual “bar district” in addition to the 10 policing districts the city already has.

The mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts shared some details about the new plan with the Independent last week; they said they expected a formal announcement soon.

However, after Friday’s contentious meeting ended abruptly without a resolution, they are revising the plan.

VonRabenstein, who owns Richter’s Cafe on Chapel Street, was one of the most vocal opponents among about nine bar and club owners who attended Friday’s meeting of the Nightlife Task Force, a group of downtown business owners and civic leaders tackling public safety issues.

The bar and club owners were asked to sign a pledge to voluntarily pay for the new detail for a three-month pilot period in September, October and November. Smuts passed around a piece of paper outlining how much each would have to pay, based on its occupancy and whether the main purpose is a bar/restaurant or a nightclub. The list included 26 bars, clubs and restaurants. Yearly bills reached as high as $35,000 for Alchemy (occupancy 500) and $40,250 for Gotham Citi Cafe (occupancy 575).

On the low end, low-key Anchor Restaurant & Bar was billed at $2,520 per year. The Owl Shop’s cigar bar was billed $1,125.

Click here to read the list that was distributed last week. Smuts cautioned that the document is a draft, and is not comprehensive. The numbers were meant to estimate the “cap” for what each bar would pay, he said.

VonRabenstein was asked to pay $450 a month, or $5,400 per year, for Richter’s.

“I feel like I’m being asked to pay protection,” he recalled telling the mayor.

VonRabenstein said he already pays about $6,000 a year in taxes. He spoke in a lunchtime interview Tuesday, as customers bit into hamburgers and watched TV in the dark, wood-paneled bar.

“I already paid the police department to do their job,” he said. “I’m not paying any more for this.”

Former Chief James Lewis first floated the idea of the bar detail last year. He suggested imposing an “entertainment tax” on bars and clubs, and using that money to pay for more cops. Such a tax would need state approval. The mayor put the issue on his list of legislative priorities in Hartford in February, but no action was taken at the Capitol.

Last week, a man was killed in a Crown Street parking lot following a fight inside the Gotham Citi Cafe. DeStefano said that homicide gave the issue urgency.

VonRabenstein said in his 22 years at Richter’s, he’s never had to call the cops to break up a fight. He questioned why quieter bars should be asked to foot the bill for violent acts outside rowdier venues.

“Because someone got shot down there, I gotta pay?” he asked. He said business has been tough, and he doesn’t have an extra $450 per week to throw into police costs.

Robb Bartholomeo, owner of Gotham, was one of the more receptive clubowners to the mayor’s proposal. Reached by phone Tuesday, he said he has already worked out a deal with ProPark to split payment of a new, four-shift-a-week police officer to add security to the parking lot where the homicide took place. The lot sits behind the former Wachovia Bank building at Church and Crown.

Over the past few years, several people have been shot, and one cop was head-butted, as after-hours crowds left the club.

Bartholomeo said he already hires five shifts of extra-duty cops to police his club each week. Under the city’s proposal, Gotham would be asked to pay another $3,354 per month for more police protection.

He welcomed the proposal. “We support anything that puts more police on the street,” he said, “but it will not change what we currently hire for officers.”

Others raised concerns.

Frank Patrick, the general manager at the popular pizza restaurant and dance club BAR (occupancy 325), was asked to pay the city $1,896 a month, or $22,750 a year.

“I’d be happy to contribute some,” he said Tuesday, but he said the new system needs to be fair. BAR, at 254 Crown St., is the only venue above College Street that hires an extra-duty cop, he said. The new system should include all the bars, restaurants and parking lots that benefit from nighttime and after-hours crowds—including those that don’t currently hire extra-duty cops, he argued.

“They’re making money off this, so they should contribute,” he said.

Further outcry sprung up as bar owners tried to figure out how many cops they would be getting for their money, according to people at Friday’s meeting. Several participants said they balked when they heard that the $300,000 would buy only four more cops.

Confusion erupted over the math, and over how the new system would be implemented, according to several people in the room.

Amid the confusion, Mayor DeStefano abruptly ended the meeting and ordered his staff into the mayor’s office.

“The meeting did not result in a resolution,” DeStefano confirmed. He said he told the bar owners that the city would clarify its plan and get back to them.

He also said the city would move forward with the new safety plan whether or not the bar owners are on board.

“We’re either going to do this with you or without you,” DeStefano said he told the room.

Smuts Tuesday provided some clarification. He said over the past few years, the city has paid $200,000 per year (on average) for four city cops (on average) to patrol the downtown bar district. Under the new proposal, the bars would chip in another $300,000 to the kitty. The total $500,000 would pay for 10 officers and supervision, Smuts said.

Smuts said Tuesday that the city is working on revising its plan to make sure all appropriate businesses, including parking lots, are included in the voluntary payment plan.

The city wants “to make sure the police department can articulate very clearly all of the details about how it would be implemented,” he said.

The bigger clarification that needs to be made, Smuts said, is what the city will do if bar owners don’t get on board with volunteering to pay for the “robust” bar detail.

Legally, the city cannot enforce a tax on all bars and clubs in the downtown district. But it can make use of two new city ordinances that were passed by the Board of Aldermen in August and took effect last Thursday.

One new law requires clubs to notify the chief of police before holding underage “juice bar” nights. The chief may then require club owners to hire extra-duty officers if he sees fit. The other law allows the police chief to require clubs to pay for extra-duty cops for promoted events at clubs.

As it prepares for another meeting with the bar owners, Smuts said, the city will look at how it can use these two new laws to enforce more hiring of extra-duty cops if clubs don’t want to do it voluntarily.

Mayor DeStefano said the city needs a new security plan for the club district.

If the bars don’t get on board of their own volition, he said, “we’ll figure out a new way to do it.”

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Comments

posted by: Jeffrey Kerekes on August 25, 2010  8:37am

There is over $300,000 spent on cronyism in the City.  Mayor, cut that if you think this is important.  Cut the Brian McGraths, the state reps who have principal jobs, Chris DePino and your washington lobbyist, your new media associate etc…  There is easily $300,000 in friends working for you.  If you think this is a priority, act like it and get rid of the waste.

posted by: nutmeg on August 25, 2010  8:37am

I agree with VonRabenstein. It is like paying [the mafia] for protection. Why should any of these businesses have to pay above and beyond what they already pay in taxes to the city? No way this could stand up to a legal challenge.

I simply do not understand politics in this city -corrupt to the core in my opinion.

posted by: Daniel Casey on August 25, 2010  8:40am

There’s no reason why any bar not on Crown St. should pay anything—specifically, only the nightspots from Gotham to BAR are a problem. In fact, the only bars or ‘clubs’ that are problems are the ones that service the recently post-adolescent. Because those bars/clubs cater to that market they should be treated appropriately for it.

Firehouse 12, Anchor, Geronimo, and even the oft blue-blood infested like Richters or the Owl Shop are nightspots for grown-ups and we don’t cause problems.

posted by: terrapin on August 25, 2010  8:56am

Isn’t that why they are paying taxes? It’s not like these bars are using the school system.

posted by: William Kurtz on August 25, 2010  8:58am

Mr. Casey has made an excellent point.

posted by: doug on August 25, 2010  10:04am

Sure impose these charges and watch everything dry up like when they changed the drinking age to 21.

posted by: Wooster Square on August 25, 2010  10:42am

If the NHPD would work with Liquor Control to curtail underage drinking at the “problem” establishments, it would go a long way in resolving the issue. Gotham, Center St. & Alchemy are the biggest culprits.  To have Richter’s (and the like) pay for the disregard of others is ludicrous.

And for God’s sake, end this concept of “hold down” jobs with NHPD. When officers are employed by the bar & report to the bar owner, how can the public be assured that our best interest is in mind.

posted by: Moira on August 25, 2010  10:59am

I agree with Mr. Casey. And if Bill O’Brien registers four of his five cars to his Woodward Ave residence (instead of his other residence in Southington where he obviously prefers to live) then that’s another several thousand dollars the city doesn’t need to harass small business owners for. Seriously. The Anchor and Firehouse 12 get hit for the issues contained to the likes of Gotham and Bar? Ridiculous.

posted by: john on August 25, 2010  11:51am

@Casey and Kurtz

AMEN.

These fees effectively ask those who act responsibly to pony up disproportionately for the negligence of others. (Draw your own conclusions with regard to what other, locally rampant social ills to which this issue pertains…)

Any such fees, despite the mayor’s “with or without you” BS ought to be levied as if penalties against those establishments whose persistent negligence engenders (encourages?) these instances of violence. There is even some kind of precedent given the courts’ recent rulings on the “Dram Shop Act”, which allows action against establishments who, e.g., serve liquor to intoxicated patrons, thereby creating proximate cause:

http://cga.ct.gov/2003/olrdata/jud/rpt/2003-R-0151.htm

Granted, these situations are not quite the same—but the general principle is much fairer than the famiglioso-inspired shenanigans proposed here. Some Crown Street places will complain that *they* brought the downtown back from its nadir (“You’d be nothing without us!”), but that “end” hardly justify the harsh reality of these recently bloody means. And—I think—it’s probably not demonstrably true. The general revitalization to downtown’s nightlife was aided by other parties, too, as well as the general economic health of the latter 90s and early 00s.

Clearly there are ways to have a successful business downtown that doesn’t end up repeatedly associated with a shootout. Connect the dots, New Haven. (Oh, and follow the money, too.)

posted by: fairhavengal on August 25, 2010  11:54am

I certainly do not think getting rid of lobbyists is the answer. That seems rather counterproductive to me. But why not start with furlough days for City employees? Everyone else has to do them now.

posted by: jon on August 25, 2010  12:30pm

I heard from people in the meeting, that the staff was unorganized and had the numbers all messed up. I think the bars pay enough in taxes and the city should cut some cushy jobs to pay for this. What a joke!

posted by: keeping it safe & fun on August 25, 2010  2:04pm

I am a woman of a certain age who does not drink in the bars for young people. The nice kids and problematic punks who frequent the problem bars walk and drive on all the area streets. The safety and well being of the mature and responsible downtown crowd depends just as much on good district policing as does the safety of the wet-behind-the-ears-rowdies and the rare sociopath. If we feel safe, we will come. I read “protection money” as yes, protection.

posted by: john on August 25, 2010  2:26pm

@keeping it safe & fun

if “[t]he safety and well being of the mature and responsible downtown crowd” is truly your concern—with “downtown” and “district” being the operative words in your argument—then shouldn’t ALL “downtown” businesses (in the real not “virtual” district be forced to contribute?:

Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Claire’s, Edible Arrangements, Starbucks(es), Merwyn’s, YUAG, that new Froyo place that everyone loves, the Shubert, the Yale Philosophy Department, NewAlliance, BofA, Salvation Army…

Sounds absurd? EXACTLY. Now, where’s my drink..?

posted by: wes on August 25, 2010  3:00pm

More police does not necessarily make for safer streets. Responsible patrons and alert citizens are just as responsible for the after-hours atmosphere. The bar/club owners should be accountable for maintaining orderly crowds and the responsibility rests with each bartender for cutting off apparently intoxicated and aggressive customers. If a fight begins with shouting in an establishment, the police should be notified before an incident escalates, moves outside, and becomes the violent nightmare that Crown St is repeatedly witness to. We all have a role to play for the safety of our fair city.

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 25, 2010  3:03pm

John,

Don’t forget Gateway, or the new downtown High School…...

posted by: Jack on August 25, 2010  3:13pm

If the nightclub district is so important to New Haven as a whole, and downtown in particular, I don’t know why they don’t just fund a beefed up bar detail via the Town Green SSD with an increased levy against downtown property owners. (who could then pass it on to their tenants.)

I also would like to point out that the latest Gotham-related violence, (in this case the 3rd murder in the club district within twenty months), involved a Bridgeport man being shot by a posse from Hartford, at 3:30 in the morning after they got into a fight at an after-hours event. Simply brilliant!

posted by: d.m. on August 25, 2010  3:46pm

how about they just require the ‘rowdier venues’ to implement metal detectors? this way people won’t be able to bring weapons into clubs and then follow people out with them to go shoot or stab someone in a parking lot.

but lets face it, gotham is the only place that is a major problem on a recurring basis.

i wouldn’t want to see a new policy that would financially cripple local businesses that bring vibrancy into the downtown…

posted by: Brian M. on August 25, 2010  4:02pm

Isn’t this what people pay taxes for?

“Oh, so you didn’t want to get mugged… oh, well that kind of police is going to cost you more. Why didn’t you say that?”

Policing a district with nightlife is part of what police do, isn’t it?

Or are we diverting ever more resources to the Ray Hassett Cyclist Antagonism Program?

posted by: watcher1 on August 25, 2010  8:06pm

my bet is the $300k will go directly to police OT and not one uniformed officer will be hired, not one cruiser will be purchased. OT guarantees to all local departments seems to be the dirty little secret as payback for recent contract concessions in the current economic downturn. this ‘entertainment district’ fee is no different from the ‘road-jobs’ the power, gas, water, and phone companies are forced into…we’ve all seen cops standing around on those, all on OT.

i believe greed and payback is alive and well.

posted by: Jeffery on August 25, 2010  10:21pm

Some young non-resident gets whacked by another non-resident and our resident “budget watchdog” blames it on the Mayor of New Haven ?
The Mayor, principally, is exactly correct. A problem has been recognized and a solution is now being sought.
Don’t blame him for the problem AND/OR (which is hilarious in its own right) the fact that the real moneymakers downtown don’t want to “do the right thing” and help keep the people they bring in here,safe.
“Budget watchdogs” are just as much a problem to real life solutions as gun-totin’ teens.
Both have agendas that are TOTALLY self serving as well as obnoxious to the senses.
Don’t shoot the messenger.

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 26, 2010  12:33am

d.m.

How bout they just shut down the offending clubs early, like the police did when there was a weekend shooting at Alpha Delta Pizza after a rowdy night of drinking at Crown Street establishments blocks away.

posted by: newhavener on August 26, 2010  1:04am

Just an idea but.. ever think about teaming up with Yale police? they have cops in downtown all the time.

I know people here dont approve of Yale PD but they are still cops and they have an interest in the area too.

posted by: Jeffrey Kerekes on August 26, 2010  8:26am

I didn’t blame DeStefano for the violence. We spend over $600 Million a year on the city and I know that if this is a genuine priority, there is money in our budget to pay for it. If its a TRUE priority to the mayor, he would cut other things to pay for it.  Thats how most family’s run their finances—pay for priorities first—cronyism should be further down the priority list.  I DO BLAME the mayor for wasting money on his friends over public safety.  If saying that makes me JUST AS BAD as the violent thugs, then your sense of judgement is worth nothing and your opinion worth the same.

I am not opposed to fair taxation. Part of fair taxation is treating every dollar like a precious resource and allocating it to its highest and best use.  When you run out of money spending it on critical needs, lets talk about raising taxes.  When you spend it on Chris DePino and Brian McGrath et al.  You are wasting money and therefore saying Pot Hole and Dumpster Detectives are more important then public safety.

The downtown restaurant, clubs, bars are an important part of our economic development strategy.  I speak with people outside the city all of time who like to come to New Haven for these reasons.  If the mayor cared about economic development, really cared—he would have eliminated the two worst economic development problems in the city—Peter Criscuolo and the Assessor.

Instead, he wants to raise taxes in the worst economic environment since the last depression.  Smart!

posted by: d.m. on August 26, 2010  2:06pm

bill s.

i don’t know. there are bars for townies, and bars for yalies, the rowdy kids need their own place too.

if i were 21 and my bar closed at 12pm, i would just go drink somewhere else. If gotham closes early, they’ll just walk down the street and cause problems at 116 crown, firehouse, bar, geronimos or some other place.

at that rate i would pull the nimby card, because i also don’t want the rowdy kids to infiltrate the nice local joints that i hang out in.  is it wrong for me to think this?

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 26, 2010  4:12pm

d.m.

Though the sarcasm may not might not have come across in the post, trust me, it is there.

Crown Street has been an major safety issue for the past ten years, yet every time the police/city attempt to address the problem, it’s the innocent business owners that get penalized right alongside the irresponsible ones.

As far as I’m concerned, Gotham has lost it’s right to at least operate their non-alchoholic late night after parties. 

Let’s face it, the city has all of the data it needs to know which businesses are the culprits.  Deal with them, and be aggressive about it.

Though I will say, It is nice to see the beginnings of change on Crown Street—newer bars like Stella Blue and Kelly’s Pub do not cater to that idiotic dance club scene, and are trying a more adult oriented approach to downtown nightlife. 

I sa

posted by: to Watcher 1 on August 27, 2010  9:56am

if you read the article, the money is yes to hire more police, probably on overtime to supplement the amount of patrol in the bar district.  There is nothing said about buying police vehicles or hiring more cops.  You clearly don’t understand the article….ohh and by the way, if those eelectriccompanies, utility companies and other ccompaniesddidn’tsupplement the officers salary, your absolutely right, greed would set in, overtime would be 100 times worse and your taxes would be even more…all those “cops” standing around are not getting paid a dime from the city, they are actually collecting about $8.00 per hour paid into your city’s general fund to again fund your silly liberal ideas programs, so instead of finding fault, why don’t you just thank the companies willing to pay so you don’t have to

posted by: watcher1 on August 27, 2010  1:45pm

so you concur it is about overtime for police. good for you. that is my point, no hires,no cars…just overtime.
police ‘extra-duty’ overtime, paid by third parties undoubtedly has become a phenomenon, especially, as i said, once the economy had gone in the tank. the actions, or inactions of cops on road-jobs is laughable, standing around for hours, doing nothing, because police unions ram-rodded ordinances through saying police need to be on site to ‘protect the public’. and in the big picture, we all have to pay the OT via the utilities through our bills. ... we just shuffle around. some jobs need cops for traffic control, to be sure, but the rest are scams. just like the bar detail.
and trust me, i am far from a liberal. i like my money, rather than spread it around.

posted by: Erasmus on August 29, 2010  10:59pm

Another example of how the Nation advances further in the direction of a police state, and I’m referring to the mayor, not to any additional police who might be hired.