Brunch in DC Could Start Earlier

Is one answer to the city’s budget woes . . . mimosas?

Talk about being driven to drink by financial woes.

DC councilmember Jim Graham held a hearing Wednesday on a slate of bills designed to help the city balance its budget with booze.

Two of the proposals come from Mayor Vincent Gray himself. In his fiscal year 2012 budget, Gray proposes extending the hours of sale at liquor stores from 10 PM to midnight. The mayor also suggests increasing the tax on alcohol sold in stores from 9 percent to 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the city’s alcohol administration proposes stripping away some prohibitions on Sunday sales. For instance, it suggests allowing liquor stores to open on Sunday. It also recommends allowing District restaurants, hotels, and bars to start selling alcohol at 8 AM instead of 10 AM on Sunday to quench the thirst of the growing brunch crowd.

Taken together, Graham says the proposals would raise $6.3 million in 2012. And the councilmember says he already has plans in mind for some of the additional funds.

The mayor’s budget would eliminate $499,000 from the city’s “reimbursable detail” program, which helps liquor licensees contract with off-duty police officers to patrol the areas outside their establishments. Without the subsidy, business owners say, the cost ($55 an hour per officer) would be crippling.

“My intent, if we decide to try to implement ABRA’s proposals in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, is to use the money raised by them to refund the reimbursable-detail program,” Graham said at the hearing.

Still, the booze-business reps at the hearing had mixed responses to the proposals. Ed Sands, co-owner of Calvert Woodley Liquor, said a sales-tax increase would slice profits at his upscale wine-and-spirits store. He said his store has already lost 54,434 customers since the last sales-tax hike in 2003. And Andrew Kline, representing the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said the prospect of higher taxes would push party planners to move events from the District to the suburbs, where the taxes are lower.

Some residents said they worried about the impact of later sales hours on peace, order, and quiet—and about the safety of shopkeepers tending their stores after dark.

“Alcohol sales so long after dark—when the majority of robberies occur and when foot traffic will likely decrease—would mean greater stress on [the Metropolitan Police Department], as more late-night liquor stores are robbed,” said Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner Jack Jacobson. “I would urge greater study to ensure safety and the ability of MPD to respond before extending these hours, in an effort to protect the welfare of both store owners and unsuspecting customers that could be caught in the crossfire.”

But the stakeholders were more sanguine when it came to the new rules for Sunday sales. Paul Pascal, representing the Association of DC Beverage Alcohol Wholesalers, speculated that lifting the ban on liquor-store sales would encourage more residents to shop locally. Jacobson admitted he has thirsted for an early-morning mimosa “more than once,” only to find his taste buds thwarted by the city’s alcohol laws.

And as Kline noted, the current law allows diners to drink alcohol as early as 8 AM every other day of the week. “It’s ironic that one can order a Bloody Mary at 8 on Wednesday or Thursday but not Sunday,” he testified at the hearing.

Graham agreed that the city’s law does appear to be a bit “arbitrary.” But, he wondered, if legislators tweak these rules, what comes next? “Before long, we’re not going to have any restrictions at all,” he said. “Before long, we’ll be like Las Vegas.”

What do you think of the various proposals to loosen the District's liquor sales laws? Let us know in the comments.  

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