Faced with a budget deficit, the Hartford Police Department is asking some downtown bars and restaurants to help pay the overtime costs for police officers assigned to maintain order in the city's entertainment district during the busiest nights of the week, when large crowds of partygoers pose the most risk for public safety threats.
The request was made by Hartford Police Chief James C. Rovella in conjunction with city officials during a recent meeting with local bar and restaurant owners, some of whom responded coldly to the idea, sources said.
Rovella said the Hartford Police Department is spending about $400,000 of its $37 million budget to provide extra police protection late nights Thursday through Saturday at bars and restaurants in the city's entertainment district, which encompasses several blocks bounded by Asylum, Ann Uccello, and Allyn streets, and Union Place.
With a projected $1.15 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, Rovella said he is looking to cut costs by forming a partnership with local business owners who benefit from the extra police protection.
Under a plan that is still being worked out, Rovella said he is looking for bars and restaurants to foot about a third of the $400,000 bill.
The program, however, would be voluntary, and city officials say there are no plans to pass an ordinance requiring bars and restaurants to fork over the extra dough.
"We are not forcing this," Rovella said. "It is a voluntary program, but we have to figure out a way to do away with this big budget item."
The request by the Hartford Police Department puts the spotlight on the role of public safety in economic development. It also comes at a sensitive time for the city as Mayor Pedro Segarra tries to portray the Capital City as a place that is friendly to business.
Since taking office in 2010, Segarra has worked to rein in city spending and taxes on businesses and residents. He even helped eliminate the unpopular business surcharge on commercial property owners. Still, Hartford businesses pay one the highest commercial property tax rates in the state.
Budgetary pressures have forced the city — and state — to look for new ways to raise revenue. Earlier this year, for example, the city proposed a new PILOT program that asks nonprofits in Hartford, particularly large hospitals and colleges that don't pay property taxes, to make voluntary payments to offset the cost of city services.
Jared Kupiec, who is Segarra's chief of staff, said the mayor remains laser focused on managing the city's $540 million budget, which officials are projecting will remain balanced at the end of current fiscal year in June.
"There is nothing more important to the mayor than managing the budget and making sure it's balanced and reducing the tax burden on businesses and residents," Kupiec said.
Kupiec said not all bar and restaurant owners responded positively to the partnership idea, but city officials are going to continue to have more dialogue to come to an agreeable solution.
"We don't want to force anything on business owners without them understanding what they are getting in return," Kupiec said. "Our success is very much tied — like with all businesses and institutions throughout the city — to their growth and overall success. Part of that success is dependent on our being able to make this area as safe as possible for all visitors and patrons."
Restaurants and bars in the entertainment district include popular names like The Russian Lady, Black Bear Saloon, Black Eyed Sally's, Up or on the Rocks, Pour House and Agave Bar & Restaurant.
Several downtown Hartford restaurant and bar owners did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
But sources who were at the recent meeting with city officials say not all local business owners were pleased with the idea of paying extra for the police presence.
Michael Zaleski, the executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District, said public safety is important to the long-term success of the entertainment district, Downtown Hartford and the entire city and that everyone involved in these early discussions believes that appropriate police coverage in the district is essential.
However, he also said he recognizes that the police detail is expensive and the police department, like all city departments, has some serious budget challenges.
"Chief Rovella understands the importance of Downtown Hartford as a destination for dining, entertainment, culture and the arts for city and suburban residents," Zaleski said. "At the same time, I believe the chief recognizes that all of the budget woes of the city cannot be placed on the backs of small business owners who are a critical component of the vibrant nightlife scene that we have in downtown."
Rovella said the police department is paying eight to 14 police officers overtime to patrol the entertainment district streets from about 10 p.m. to as late as 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
That is the busiest time for the bars and restaurants in the area, when large crowds of bar dwellers congregate and eventually exit together at the 2 a.m. closing time. It is also the time when the highest levels of violent crimes occur in surrounding Hartford communities, putting significant strain on the department's resources, Rovella said.
The Hartford Police Department spends about $260,000 in overtime pay for assigned officers patrolling the entertainment district. But on certain nights, the HPD will add to its regular police presence there, pulling in staff from other departments to patrol the area. That raises overall annual costs to about $400,000.
Rovella said a police presence in the entertainment district is crucial for maintaining peace in an area that can become unruly, especially at closing time when large groups of people — some of whom are intoxicated — exit the bars and restaurants at the same time.
There have been issues in the past.
In 2009, for example, the state helped shut down The Mansion nightclub in downtown after one person was shot and four others were stabbed during a weeklong streak of violence. The incidents were a major black eye for the city, and angered many downtown business owners who feared it would deter people from visiting downtown.
"Losing peace down there would be the worst advertisement we can have for city businesses," Rovella said.
The specifics as to how individual businesses would be charged have not been hashed out yet, Rovella said, but the goal would be for bar and restaurant owners to cover a third of the $400,000 spent on the police presence in the entertainment district.
The cost for hiring a Hartford police officer for a private duty job is $488 for an eight-hour shift, Kupiec said. That price tag shot up by $100 over the past year, after the city and Hartford Police Union agreed to a new contract during the summer. The 26 percent increase took into account wage increases and increases in health care and pension benefits, Kupiec said.
However, there is a special rate of $244 charged to the XL Center, which, on event nights, requires the assistance of a larger number of police officers.
The special "XL Center rate" had to be negotiated separately with the Hartford Police Union as the collective bargaining agreement with the city didn't allow for that change, Kupiec said,
Kupiec said bars in the entertainment district could be extended the XL Center rate, under one possible scenario.