LAFAYETTE — The City-Parish Council upheld liquor-license suspensions Tuesday for five Jefferson Street bars that have refused to pay a fee to help fund a special weekend police detail in downtown Lafayette.
Karma, Guamas, The Bed, Bootleggers and The Rabbit Hole each face a possible three-day liquor license suspension for past due fees that total about $50,000.
The bars, which argue that the security fee is unconstitutional, appealed to the council to overturn the suspensions.
The council denied the appeals, setting the stage for a court battle over whether city-parish government can charge bars a fee to fund police patrols to keep Jefferson Street crowds in check.
Attorney Daniel Stanford, who represents Karma, Guamas and the Rabbit Hole, told the council Tuesday that the security fee amounts to an illegal tax on downtown bars for a service that should be funded through taxes the businesses already pay.
The fee “is essentially a tax for police security on the streets of downtown Lafayette,” Stanford said.
The ordinance that created the downtown security fee relies on a state law that allows local governments to regulate alcohol sales, but Stanford said, the fee has no connection to the regulation of alcohol sales and is assessed solely to pay police for crowd control on public streets.
The legal questions were discussed only briefly Tuesday, because the issue before the council was whether the city-parish administration had followed the letter of the law in imposing a liquor-license suspension for nonpayment of the fee, not whether the security fee is constitutional.
“Until deemed unconstitutional by a court, (the fee) is deemed constitutional,” City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert said.
All of the bar owners or their representatives said Tuesday that they are refusing to pay the fee because they believe it is improper.
Stanford said the legal issues will be argued when he appeals the council’s decision to state court.
The City-Parish Council approved the downtown bar security fee in 2009 after the overtime bills for the downtown detail began climbing as crowds flocked to Jefferson Street.
The stated intent of the fee was to have bars share the more than $500,000 a year that the city-parish government pays in overtime for the downtown police details.
The fee ranges from $183 to $4,870 per month, depending on the size of the bar.
Council members said they have differing opinions on the security fee, with some saying they support it while others said they agree with bar owners that it is wrong to single out one group of businesses in one area of the city to pay for police services.
Councilman Brandon Shelvin said Tuesday he plans to propose that the fee be repealed.