LAFAYETTE — Several downtown bars have stopped paying a security levy to help fund police patrols to keep weekend crowds in check, setting the stage for a battle over the legality of the special fee.
Half of the 16 bars downtown are delinquent, owing a total of about $38,000, according to figures from city-parish government.
City-parish officials last month ordered a three-day liquor-license suspension effective Nov. 10 through Nov. 13 for five of the bars that have not paid the fee in three months or more — The Bed, Karma, The Rabbit Hole, Bootleggers and Guamas, which also has a restaurant.
The bars have now appealed to the City-Parish Council, putting the suspensions on hold while bar owners come together to mount a legal challenge to the security fee.
“It’s unconstitutional,” said attorney Daniel Stanford, who represents five downtown bars in the dispute, including three establishments that are appealing the three-day license suspension — Karma, The Rabbit Hole and Guamas.
Stanford said the city-parish government cannot legally single out one group of businesses for what amounts to a tax to fund a public service that the downtown bars already pay regular taxes to support.
“What it is getting you is what you have already paid for, which is police on the streets,” Stanford said.
City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley said the administration will not comment on the issue while the appeals are pending.
The battle could be lengthy, because Stanford said his clients will likely appeal to state district court if the council upholds the liquor-license suspension.
The council is scheduled to hear the appeals Nov. 15.
The City-Parish Council imposed the downtown bar security fee in 2009 to help offset an overtime bill for special downtown police details, a response to the growing weekend bar crowd downtown.
The bill for the special detail has grown to about $544,000 a year
The security fee, which grew out of months of negotiations between the Police Department and bar owners, is meant to cover half that bill.
Sixteen downtown establishments are now assessed fees ranging from $183 a month up to $4,870 a month, depending on capacity.
Karma, the largest club downtown, faces the highest monthly fee and has not paid since July, racking up a past-due bill of nearly $20,000, according to city-parish records.
The dispute comes as the council is mulling possible changes to the security-fee arrangement.
Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents the downtown area, has said he believes downtown bar owners are paying too much for what is generally considered a public service.
Shelvin has said he would like to repeal the security fee or replace the current fee system with a $2,500- per-year flat fee.
Other council members have said that if downtown bar crowds require a beefed-up police presence, then the bar owners, not city-parish government, should take more responsibility for the expense.