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Beltrami County Board proposes ordinance to close bars at 1 a.m.

A feisty Beltrami County Board started the process Tuesday to prohibit bars from selling alcohol after 1 a.m., and lambasted the Bemidji City Council for its ordinance to allow bars to remain open until 2 a.m.

Commissioners also placed an immediate moratorium to prevent bars in the county from requesting a state permit to stay open until 2 a.m., as permitted by state law in counties which have not set the later closing time or prohibited sales after 1 a.m.

The moratorium will last until the process to amend the county's liquor ordinance No. 44 is resolved through a three-reading process. Already Tuesday one bar owner inquired about acquiring a state permit, County Administrator Tony Murphy said.

The county action would apply to only about eight bars in unincorporated areas of the county. It would not affect establishments within city limits -- Bemidji or any other city in the county. A bar in the city of Funkley has a 2 a.m. state permit as the city there has no ordinance prohibiting it, County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said.

The action came one day after the Bemidji City Council passed on a 4-3 vote an ordinance to allow bars in the city to sell intoxicating beverages until 2 a.m. Supporters say the move is necessary in order to sell southeast Lake Bemidji land to construct a Zorbaz bar/restaurant, which will only locate there if granted a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

"Nothing good happens in a pub after 11 p.m. to 1 o'clock in the morning," said Commissioner Jim Lucachick during the board's afternoon work session of the city's new ordinance. "This just stretches it from 1 to 2 a.m. It is my very strong opinion that pubs in Beltrami County don't have to stay open to 2 a.m."

He said the city "is promoting the south shore development and changing the rules to accommodate that. It is a clear conflict of interest."

County Attorney Tim Faver and Hodapp, who recommended the moratorium and ordinance amendment process, presented statistics showing a sharp increase in calls for service and fights and assaults during the later hours a bar is open.

Commissioner Joe Vene asked Hodapp if the City Council had been given that information and what was councilors' reaction.

"Yes, they were," Hodapp said, "and they had no reaction other than to vote for the 2 a.m. bar closing."

Commissioner Jim Heltzer was critical that the City Council didn't consult with the County Board first, as he theorized that the extra hour will cost county taxpayers.

"The council action floods our county and state highways with people searching for a DWI conviction," Heltzer said. "How many programs do we have in human services that are exacerbated by drinking and driving? We have an epidemic in this county, and those people bleed our budget dry."

The City Council should have discussed the ramifications of the potential action with the county, he said. "It is a very bad idea of public policy."

The City Council "is not dealing with the consequences of poverty in the county," Murphy said. "If it considers a 2 a.m. bar closing as economic development, they are just plain nuts. This is contrary to anything that can be considered economic development, and is selfish economic development for the city of Bemidji."

He supported the idea of a moratorium while the three readings process plays out because otherwise "establishments have the ability to be open later without the approval of the County Board - they can jump the gun."

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, who said the moratorium would affect only a few bars in his district, argued that each commissioner use the bully pulpit to express discontent with the city action, rather than create an uneven playing field with a moratorium.

Lucachick agreed, saying a dialog should be held with bar owners, municipal officials in Beltrami County and the Bemidji City Council to seek a consistent policy. Perhaps the new City Council will repeal the ordinance before it even takes effect, he thought.

"We don't want to make a big deal of it," he said, since so few county bars are affected.

But Hodapp said bars close to the city limits are affected and the later closing time in Bemidji could see a migration of drinking people coming from nearby bars into the city.

He reminded commissioners of the county theme, Safe Neighborhoods, under its Strategy Aligned Management model and of the "Bemidji Leads!" destiny driver that "Bemidji will have the lowest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the state by 2015."

"The County Board is in a unique position as it is viewed as a leadership board for the entire county," Hodapp said. "The small towns and cities look to your leadership. ... You have a dog in the hunt -- you fund the jail."

"It's not so much one hour at one bar," said Faver. "At some point, another will go to 2 a.m., and another, until all will be forced to go to 2 a.m."

Lucachick said he'd received several phone calls from bar owners asking about seeking the later closing time. "They don't like it, but if they want to be competitive, they want to be open to 2 a.m. as well.

"The city has opened the floodgate," he said.

It appeared during the work session that a moratorium and a proposal to amend the county ordinance to prohibit bars from serving alcohol after 1 a.m. would pass 3-2. But when offered during the regular meeting, the motion passed unanimously.

No indication was given of when the first reading would be.