Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) on Wednesday urged community activists to protest vigorously against state budget cuts blamed for the impending layoff of 75% of the investigators who monitor sales of alcoholic beverages.
“We have to make a lot more noise or the governor’s not going to get a message,” said Katz, who with another legislator held a hearing near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles to consider the impact of the cuts, which are set to go into effect Friday.
A parade of homeowners, business leaders and anti-alcohol and community activists told Katz and Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Gardena) that instead of cutting the budget of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the state should increase it by raising license fees and the fines levied for violations such as selling alcohol to minors.
If the 23% reduction in the agency’s budget is not restored, several people predicted, the state will experience more alcohol-related traffic accidents, more juvenile alcoholism and the decay of communities where scofflaw alcohol sellers serve minors and people who are already intoxicated.
Despite the opposition to the $4.9 million in cuts that has surfaced in recent weeks from police and community members at hearings around the state, Gov. Pete Wilson has stuck by his guns. Paradoxically, the ABC actually makes a profit for the state from the fees and fines on alcohol sellers that its investigators generate.
“I think unfortunately we will have some grim statistics to take to him in January if he goes ahead with this,” Katz said.
Statewide, the budget cut will result in the layoff of all but 55 of the department’s 197 investigators, a number that several people who spoke at the hearing said is already inadequate.
Angela Goldberg, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Alcohol Policy Coalition, said: “We can’t afford to let the governor use the community’s health in a game with the state unions or the Legislature. The ABC, as it is, has their hands tied and is not doing enough. It’s time to increase the fees and expand the department.”
Augie Maldonado, a Pacoima community activist who has spearheaded efforts to control drunk driving and illegal alcohol sales in the northeast San Fernando Valley, said he was “terrified” of what will happen after the budget cuts go into effect.
“The owners, they know what they can and what they can’t get away with,” he said. “We were getting a grip on it and now the pendulum is going to shift to the other side.”
Evidence of that shift is already occurring in the ABC’s Van Nuys office, which has nine investigators to monitor the sales of 3,600 outlets in a 2,600-square-mile area that includes the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. Five investigators will remain after the budget cuts begin.
Jim Smith, the head of the office, said in an interview that he has pulled seven of the investigators off the streets to allow them to wrap up paperwork before the layoffs. As a result, the office has suspended all nighttime undercover operations.
If the cuts stand, the office will no longer be able to keep track of the numerous beer bars in the Pacoima area, which cater to men who have recently arrived from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, Smith said.
Those bars often illegally employ so-called beer girls to boost their sales. Beer girls earn a percentage of the amount that the men spend on beer. The men often pay inflated prices for sitting with them.
Smith said his office is seeking to suspend or revoke the licenses of 10 of the bars in the Pacoima area for violations such as serving intoxicated people or employing beer girls. “You’ve got people getting served until they’re falling down drunk and they can barely walk, let along drive, but a lot of them are getting into cars and driving,” Smith said.
One of the most notorious cases in Smith’s district involves the Pacoima Food Market on Van Nuys Boulevard, which has been the target of numerous efforts by Los Angeles police and ABC investigators over the past five years. Two weeks ago, the ABC’s recommendation that the store’s license be taken away was heard by an administrative law judge, who will issue a ruling next week.
The revocation recommendation was based on allegations that its owner, Farah Ammari, brandished a gun at a customer, sold beer to minors while his license was suspended for a previous violation and sold drug paraphernalia.
Asked about those allegations Wednesday, Ammari said he “definitely” will prevail and keep his license. He refused to make any other comment.
“He just thumbed his nose at us and never really changed,” Smith said. “He kept selling to minors and it was business as usual.”
If the pending budget cuts go through, Smith said, businesses such as Ammari’s will operate virtually without fear of penalty because overburdened police agencies will not be able to pick up the slack.
A few blocks from Wednesday’s hearing, another market that the ABC is trying to shut down continued operating.
At the Blue Bird Market on South Main Street, customers in grimy clothes enter a caged alcove, shove money at the cashier through wrought-iron bars and gruffly call out the name of the fortified wine of their choice.
With their bottles of Cisco or Thunderbird in hand, the customers face danger as they leave. During a 30-month period, 71 thefts and strong-arm robberies occurred at the market, and in most cases it was the customers--usually robbed of their newly purchased bottles--who were victims, according to state records.
David Robbins, chief of the ABC’s Los Angeles-Metropolitan office, is trying to put the Blue Bird out of business as a “disorderly house” because of the crime he said it attracts. The recommendation that the Blue Bird’s license be revoked is pending before an administrative law judge.
But after the budget cuts, such enforcement efforts will no longer be possible, Robbins said. “These places will be rampant.”
The reductions will leave Robbins’ downtown Los Angeles office, which now has 13 investigators to monitor 3,500 licensees, with only two staffers. That office has shut down 15 downtown bars and liquor stores in recent years and has eight revocation actions, including the one against the Blue Bird, pending.
Estella Lopez, head of Miracle on Broadway, a downtown merchants group, told Katz that the reductions will impede efforts to revitalize Broadway as a respectable shopping district.
“When I invite investors and bankers to look at downtown, to come and help us redevelop this area--what we have to step over, what we have to face is this human tragedy” of public drunkenness, Lopez said.
“It affects our ability to do business. Good stores close or they don’t open.”