Bar owner questions Chico PD proposal

The alcohol-compliance officer would be paid through extra fees on booze-selling businesses

Woody Sjostrom, owner of the Towne Lounge, feels that mandatory fees to fund an alcohol compliance and education officer would hurt his business.

Woody Sjostrom, owner of the Towne Lounge, feels that mandatory fees to fund an alcohol compliance and education officer would hurt his business.

Photo by Kyle Emery

Booze banter:
The Chico Police Department will hold a meeting at the City Council chambers on Monday, Jan. 23, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. to discuss the proposed alcohol compliance and education officer and associated fees.

For some local business owners, like Woody Sjostrom, who owns the Towne Lounge bar in downtown Chico, the Chico Police Department’s recent pitch for a new alcohol-compliance program offers little value in return for yet another fee.

“They aren’t having problems with us; they’re having problems with the kids partying in college town,” he said during a recent phone interview.

Chico’s police are advocating for an “alcohol compliance and education officer,” a position that would be paid for entirely by an annual fee imposed on bars, liquor stores and restaurants that serve alcohol. It would require the modification of a city ordinance regarding use permits.

“Some people like the idea, but it is tough to sell everyone on the idea of paying additional fees,” said Sgt. Rob Merrifield. “Not everybody is keen on it.”

The concept follows the example of a similar program developed by the Ventura Police Department in 2005, which has since collected annual fees ranging from $250 to $1,400 to fund a specialized officer whose main function is acting as a liaison between the police, the city and business owners in alcohol-related matters. Part of the officer’s responsibilities would be establishing clear legal guidelines for what is expected of business owners with a liquor license, which can be confusing, Merrifield said.

“There are a lot of different ways you can run afoul of [Alcohol Beverage Control] statutes,” he said. “For example, a couple years ago there was a lot of confusion about businesses hiring security guards who weren’t licensed or trained, and that was a liability for them. We were able to come up with some information about that for them, and that helps them stay in compliance with the state and the city.”

The officer would fill a role Chico is lacking. ABC’s office in Redding employs three investigators responsible for regulating more than 1,800 licensed businesses across nine counties. The alcohol-compliance officer would ideally establish relationships with Chico’s licensees and help ensure they are compliant with ABC.

“There would be an officer who could come around and keep you out of trouble,” Merrifield said.

However, some bar and liquor store owners like Sjostrom, who has owned the Towne Lounge since 2003, don’t see a need for extra guidance and aren’t pleased with the proposal and the associated annual fee.

“We’re very clear on what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

For Sjostrom, the program, he said, would be yet another way regulations will impose on his freedoms and drive customers away from downtown bars.

“It’s frustrating for me that they keep regulating us like this,” he said. “I think they’ve taken it to an extreme, they’ve taken away so many of our rights as business owners.”

Sjostrom points to limited holiday hours—intended to cut down downtown crowds during high-activity weekends like Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day—as one of his least favorite city restrictions. He feels the proposed alcohol-compliance program could be equally unfair to a business owner in his position.

One of the proposed methods for determining fees would involve a measurement of gross alcohol sales, a system that would charge the Towne Lounge and large grocery outlets like Safeway and Costco the same fee, Sjostrom said.

“Costco sells a heck of a lot more booze than I do,” he said.

Ventura’s fee-collection model is a sliding scale based on four variables: risk (any alcohol outlet considered high-risk by the city); the latest hour a business is open; volume of alcohol purchased the previous year; and whether a business offers entertainment like live music or dancing. Chico’s version figures to follow the same basic framework.

Merrifield concedes the proposed alcohol-compliance program will involve a trade-off that not everyone will be happy with.

“We want businesses to be successful, but these places do require a level of service from us that is different from any other business in Chico,” Merrifield said. “Like it or not, businesses that sell alcohol in the community create calls for our department.”

In fact, Merrifield estimates that roughly half the calls to Chico PD are related to alcohol in one way or another. The police consider the proposition a means to approach Chico’s ongoing alcohol-abuse problem in a proactive manner, citing Ventura’s reported reduction of alcohol-related calls and improved relations between the police and business owners.

It remains to be seen whether the proposition will be reviewed by the City Council to become an ordinance or City Attorney Lori Barker will move for a ballot vote.