D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposal to extend bar hours by one hour would not apply to 267 bars, nightclubs and restaurants that have existing voluntary agreements with their neighbors, according to the city agency that regulates alcohol.
During a nearly six-hour-long hearing on the proposal Tuesday night, the head of the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration said the proposal would not extend the hours of roughly 20 percent of existing liquor license holders.
Fred Moosally, the director, told the Human Services Committee that ABRA made the determination after reviewing a 2008 legal opinion by former attorney general Peter Nickles. The opinion was issued when the city extended bar closing times during President Obama’s inauguration, Moosally said.
The decision could slow community opposition to Gray’s proposal, but adds additional uncertainty about how much money the city would raise with an extra hour of alcohol sales.
Council member Jim Graham, chairman of the Human Services Committee, has been mounting vigorous opposition to Gray’s plan to extend hours to 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 on weekends. During his testimony shortly after 10 p.m Tuesday, Graham grew visibly agitated and testy with Moosally when the director declined to take a firm stance against the proposal.
Graham, who lobbied last year to keep oversight over alcohol issues after being removed as head of the Public Works Committee, has been searching for allies to try to kill the proposal since Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced that she did not think the proposal would have a significant impact on public safety.
When Moosally declined to speak out against the plan, Graham demanded that the full ABC Board vote on the matter in the coming weeks.
“I think this is a big deal, but what I am getting from ABRA seems to be minimizing it,” Graham told Moosally. “Do you think this is a big deal?”
Moosally responded that some routine neighborhood annoyances that currently occur at 2 a.m.or 3 a.m. would occur an hour later, but he said he did not believe it would be a major threat to public safety.
For Graham, the effort to kill the later bar hours threatens to overshadow his simultaneous goal of restoring money for human services.
To kill the bar bill, Graham must come up with about $5 million in new revenue or spending cuts in the fiscal 2013 budget.
On Tuesday night, Graham floated the idea of raising the excise tax on alcohol and allowing Sunday liquor sales to recoup some of the money. But the sales tax on alcohol was just raised to 10 percent last year.
It also appears doubtful that Graham could convince council member Jack B. Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, to agree to a tax increase this year. And if Graham kills Gray’s bar bill, he may find it harder to rally allies on the council for additional funding for some of his priorities, including more funding for homeless services and families on public assistance.
“I’m in a real quandary here,” Graham told Moosally. “I don’t like this idea and think it will have a real adverse impact on our neighborhoods, but I don’t have” the money.
Yet Graham doesn’t appear to be in a mood for compromise, either. During the hearing, he voiced a largely parochial view of the issue, framing the issue as what was best for Ward 1.
Graham stressed that he strongly sympathized with concerns from neighborhood groups in Adams Morgan and Kaloroma about the potential for late-night noise and violence. But when some advisory neighborhood commissioners and activists suggested that they would be open to allowing later hours in certain non-residential neighborhoods, Graham said he would most likely oppose the concept because he didn’t want to “hurt” Adams Morgan bars and restaurants by leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.
If Gray’s proposal survives, Moosally said the precedent is clear that not all bars and restaurants will be eligible. There are 1,169 active liquor licenses in the District. Currently, 409 of those establishments have voluntary agreements, of which 267 include restrictions on closing hours.
Those restrictions would remain in place until the agreements expire or are renegotiated, Moosally said.