IOWA CITY — A proposed bill to allow 19- and 20-year-old adults into drinking establishments has the potential to abolish the city’s nearly five-year-old ordinance.
It’s a bill that doesn’t sit well with some Iowa City officials.
“If understand the bill correctly, it would — if it became law — be a serious setback for Iowa City,” Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said.
Senate File 208, a bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday, would prevent Iowa counties and cities from adopting ordinances barring 19- and 20-year-old adults from bars.
Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, said the legislation would also overrule existing ordinances that keep 19- and 20-year-old adults out of bars. That would include Iowa City’s, which bans those patrons from drinking establishments after 10 p.m.
Horn, who introduced the file with Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said the bill focuses on safety, arguing that allowing those adults in bars would keep them away from dangerous house parties where binge drinking and assaults occur.
“We’re not saying they can drink; we’re just saying they have a right to go in and be there,” Horn said. “Don’t make the girls go out and be jeopardized at private parties. The safest place is in the bar.”
However, city officials have been saying for years that the local 21-ordinance has been increasing public safety.
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“In the five years since the ordinance, the evidence is clear that safety has improved, that our downtown has improved, that our neighborhoods did not implode with crazy house parties, and that our arts and culture and general night life are as vibrant as they’ve ever been,” Hayek said. “The notion that Iowa City’s ordinance forces young people into house parties is a red herring.”
According to information compiled from police and fire department data in 2013, when voters ultimately approved the 21 ordinance for the second consecutive time,public safety has been increasing since the ordinance passed.
Police calls for service dropped by 9 percent, or 1,383 calls, when comparing June 1 2007 through May 31, 2010 to June 1, 2010 through May 31, 2013 — after the ordinance had been adopted, according to the data.
Police calls for service within the University Impact Area, the area near downtown, dropped by 19 percent, or 1,404 calls, in the same comparison.
The data also shows that fire department emergency medical response calls dropped by 23.6 percent downtown and by 1.1 percent off campus. Citywide, calls dropped by 9.3 percent, according to the data.
Arrest statistics on the Iowa City Police Department website show fluctuations in disorderly house charges. The department issued 90 such charges in 2007, 135 in 2008 and 165 in 2009 — the three years before the 21 ordinance.
The department issued 273 disorderly house charges in 2010, the ordinance’s first year, but charges dropped to 244 in 2011 and 202 in 2012, before climbing up to 275 in 2013. Last year the department issued only 153 disorderly house charges.
Currently, only five Iowa City bars that have an entertainment venue exception can admit 19- and 20-year-old patrons after 10 p.m.: Blue Moose, Gabe’s, Iowa City Yacht Club, Studio 13, and The Mill Restaurant. Recently opened arcade Forbidden Planet has a temporary exception that expires in April.
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Pete McCarthy, general manager with Iowa City Yacht Club and Gabe’s, said that while his establishments are exempt from the ordinance, he has seen less business in the years following its passage.
“If they do pass something like that, I would be for it,” he said. “We have the live music exemption, but we’re nowhere near as good as it was before the ordinance.”
Food venues, or businesses that make more than 50 percent of their gross earnings from non-alcohol sales, can also admit patrons under 21 after 10 p.m.
Location ordinances, like Iowa City’s 500-foot spacing rule that prohibits a drinking establishment from opening within 500 feet of an existing bar, would be unaffected by the Senate bill.
The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce Committee for further consideration and will eventually be assigned a subcommittee for review.
Hayek said he hadn’t spoken with city staff of the council on the proposed bill, but said if it picks up momentum, local officials will likely be planning a trip to the statehouse.
“The community has seen over the last 5 years the benefits of the ordinance, it remains important to Iowa City and it continues to be one of reasons our downtown is thriving,” he said. “So if this gains steam in the legislature, I would certainly anticipate having a presence in Des Moines so we can talk about the experience of Iowa City.”