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S.F. Eyes Booze Fee To Meet Costs Of Alcoholism

Cities and counties across California, desperate to find new revenue sources to plug budget deficits, are watching a committee vote in San Francisco where supervisors are considering what's being billed a "nickel a drink" fee to pay for the cost of dealing with alcohol abusers.

A steady stream of alcoholics shows up at San Francisco's Sobering Center. They don't drop in. They are dropped off -- by paramedics, police officers and a fleet of mobile assistance patrol vans.

"I would say most of my clients here at the Sobering Center buy their liquor at the corner stores, the $2 bottle of the cheapest vodka you can find," says Shannon Smith, a registered nurse who is the center's coordinator.

Rising Costs

The vast majority of her clients are not party people on a weekend bender. San Francisco has a huge homeless population –- and those who drink heavily cost a lot to take care of.

The Sobering Center, run by the Public Health Department, is designed to limit those costs. A visit runs $300, compared with $3,000 for a visit to the emergency room. Still, the city spends more than $17 million a year to cover the health and human service costs of alcohol abuse.

Supervisor John Avalos wants alcohol wholesalers and distributors to help pick up the tab.

"Our treatment programs are on the chopping block," he says. "Our substance-abuse programs are on the chopping block. Our fire services are really strapped because of our budget crisis as well.

"So this measure is really an effort to be able to stabilize our funding for these services, to deal with overconsumption of alcohol."

Other California cities and counties charge retailers for licensing and public safety costs. But Avalos' proposal goes further.

The city controller's office conducted a study to determine the direct cost of alcohol abuse to public health programs. To recover those costs, Avalos is pursuing a charge of .076 cents on every ounce of alcohol sold in San Francisco.

Businesses Protest

The fee would be levied on wholesalers, producers and retailers. Avalos expects that consumers would pay about a nickel more a drink, but that's not a number that flies with people in the alcohol and entertainment industries.

"The day of the $8 Budweiser is coming," says Guy Carson, who co-owns Cafe du Nord, a landmark nightclub in San Francisco. "That's what they're charging in New York."

Carson says supervisors are trying to kill one of the few geese that lay golden eggs in the city: tourism. He is on the board of the California Music and Culture Association, one of several industry groups that oppose the fee, in part because it's the latest fee levied on small businesses in the city.

"I invite any one of you to take a walk down Market Street and we can count the closed storefronts," Carson says. "You know, small business cannot bear the brunt of this onslaught of fees. Every department in the city is digging for money -- and the state.

"I understand why. But it's killing us."

The measure gets a first-round vote in the Budget and Finance Committee next week. A final vote is expected in September.

Supervisors in Marin and Los Angeles counties are said to be watching closely, but they are expected to wait to see whether anybody sues San Francisco -- and how that plays out -- before they start drafting copycat measures.

Copyright 2022 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

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