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San Diego strippers say fee hike makes it hard for them to make ends meet

San Diego strippers say fee hike makes it hard for them to make ends meet
A nude dancing club in San Diego. (Union-Tribune file photo)

San Diego strippers and strip club owners are lobbying city officials to lower their annual permit fees, which they say are much higher than other cities and can't be justified in terms of how many hours police typically spend monitoring the clubs.

They say the fees, which are scheduled to rise on July 1 to $388 for a dancer and $5,830 for a club operator, encourage women to shift toward unregulated websites where they're more vulnerable to prostitution and human trafficking.

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Charging high fees is also shortsighted, they say, contending that dwindling business in the clubs is costing the city much more in sales tax and other revenues than the annual permit fees collected.

"No other city charges fees this high, or even at all," said Debra Seavello, a stripper at Expose in Kearny Mesa. "Ten years ago the fees were half as much, and it was a lot easier to make ends meet."

An industry group called the San Diego Hospitality and Entertainment Coalition is lobbying city officials to form a task force to analyze challenges facing the industry, the fees and the risks of pushing strippers out of a regulated industry.

Police officials say the fees are justified based on the personnel they devote to processing permits, responding to incidents and proactively monitoring clubs to prevent prostitution and other criminal activity.

The council's Budget and Government Efficiency subcommittee was asked on April 18 to approve fee increases for strippers and strip clubs along with a few hundred other proposed fee changes.

The full council is scheduled on May 21 to consider those changes, which the subcommittee approved unanimously. They would take effect with the new budget year on July 1.

Every three years, the city reviews the more than 300 fees and fines it charges to ensure they are fair and to comply with a voter-approved state law that limits what governments can charge to the actual cost of the services they provide.

Strippers and strip club owners told the committee the fees they are charged are already much higher than is warranted based on how much time police actually spend monitoring the clubs.

They say it would be inappropriate and unfair to approve the proposed increases, from $360 to $388 for strippers and from $5,784 to $5,830 for strip clubs.

By comparison, the annual fee for a strip club business in Los Angeles is $528, according to the coalition.

Seavello suggested the fees could be inflated based on negative perceptions of stripping and exotic dancing.

"I know there might be a certain stigma for dancers, however these are mothers who are trying to raise children and do the right thing by working rather than being a burden to the state," she said. "We can't afford these increases year after year."

Jennifer Sales, a former stripper who now works as a manager at Expose, said the fees are particularly problematic for women who arrive in San Diego with little money and need a job.

She said their inability to afford the upfront permit fees forces many to opt instead for webcams, Craigslist, Snapchat and Instagram.

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"That's dangerous for them," she said. "At least in the clubs we keep them safe and regulated."

Dino Palmiotto, owner of Expose and president of the coalition, said city officials haven't responded to a public records request he submitted recently seeking a detailed accounting of what the fees are based on.

Palmiotto said he suspects the city is violating state law by charging far more than what it costs the Police Department to monitor the strippers and clubs.

He said city officials could face litigation if they don't choose to embrace his suggestion to form a task force to study the issue.

City finance officials said during the April 18 hearing that each department carefully analyzes its fees every three years to make sure they are justified.

The proposed fees are then reviewed by financial management and City Atty. Mara Elliott's staff.

Finance officials said recent pay hikes approved for San Diego police aren't a factor in the proposed increases for strippers and strip clubs.

That's because the fee analysis was based on labor costs from the ongoing budget year, and the raises don't start kicking in until the upcoming budget year begins.

While 37 fees charged by the Police Department are slated to increase on July 1, nine would decrease and 15 would not change.

Among the fees slated to decrease are those for pool rooms, bowling alleys and money exchange businesses.

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