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Time running out for earlier bar closing time measure in Erie County

Remember all that talk during election season about earlier bar closing times in Erie County? Well, forget about it. As far as the Erie County Legislature is concerned, that might as well have been empty barroom chatter.

The Legislature is set to vote Thursday on whether to move up the bar closing time from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. Some lawmakers expect the measure to fail by a wide margin despite support from law enforcement and polling showing public support for the change.

“It seems they’re just trying to sweep this under the rug and be done with it,” said Republican Erie County Clerk Christopher Jacobs, who started pushing for the 2 a.m. rollback last summer.

Legislator Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga, agreed to sponsor the measure in October, during his re-election campaign. But he said he couldn’t persuade most of his fellow legislators to support the bill. He’s resigned to the proposal’s demise Thursday.

“The way things stand now, I don’t think we’ll have the votes there to get this thing passed Thursday, or a month from Thursday,” he said. “My sense is it could easily be a 10-1 or 9-2 vote against this.”

Though other legislators often try to build support for their resolutions in committee or call for hearings to test public support, Morton said that, based on his conversations, he didn’t think it would help.

That prompted Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Loughran – owner of Loughran’s Bar & Restaurant in Amherst – to accuse Morton of using the bar closing issue as a shallow election ploy.

“Was this just election grandstanding?” he asked. “To push this forward knowing this going to fail? It doesn’t seem like responsible legislation.”

The failure of the 2 a.m. bar-closing measure to gain traction in the Legislature is nothing new. In 2011, after the City Grill shootings, some county legislators pledged to look at earlier bar closing times, but they didn’t. Since Morton reintroduced the idea, the Legislature has held no substantive public discussion on the matter.

Loughran called for a public hearing, which would have been required for the measure to be seriously considered by the State Liquor Authority. But that’s not happening.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, who is still weighing the issue. “We just think this is an up or down. It really doesn’t behoove us to let this linger.”

Jacobs, the county clerk, helped fund a poll in September that showed 69 percent of Erie County residents support the 2 a.m. closing time. But the controversial proposal presents problems for county lawmakers torn between being viewed as supporting local businesses or supporting public safety.

Jacobs, who oversees the county’s auto bureaus, said he believes the measure would cut down on late-night drinking-and-driving accidents and fatalities. His proposal gained the support of unions representing the New York State Police and the Erie County Sheriff’s Road Patrol.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and homeowner and neighborhood groups near the Chippewa Street entertainment district also support of the measure.

Restaurant, bar and club owners are divided.

Many see the resolution as placing more unwarranted and unnecessary mandates on small businesses. Mark Croce, who holds roughly half a dozen liquor licenses for Buffalo restaurant and bar establishments, said the vast majority of liquor license holders already close by 2 a.m., if not earlier. If anyone wants to drink irresponsibly, they can do it any time of day, he added.

“Right now, we have a law that has been working for many, many decades,” he said. “Why have government put more rules and regulations on businesses?”

Others say 2 a.m. bar closings would encourage more patrons to come out earlier and would be better for businesses and employees, as well for local neighborhoods and public safety. Earl Ketry, who owns more than a dozen area liquor-license establishments, was among those who signed a letter urging the Legislature to “seriously consider this reform.”

Both sides have cited their own data to bolster their cases for or against the earlier bar closing time.

Jacobs cited his poll, showing 69 percent support an earlier bar closing time. Those results have been criticized by opponents who point out the pollster, Barry Zeplowitz, typically does work for Republicans. They accuse Jacobs of paying Zeplowitz to employ “push poll” techniques to get the poll results Jacobs wanted.

“My opinion is the poll was B.S.,” Croce said. “Barry Zeplowitz is not independent with regard to Chris Jacobs.”

Zeplowitz, who has done polling work across the country for more than 35 years, said he has presidential candidates who rely on the accuracy of his survey findings.

His poll of 600 registered Erie County voters employed standard polling techniques, he said. Any assertion to the contrary is “silliness,” he said.

Jacobs also referred to a 2013 study indicating that while later bar closing times weren’t associated with more felony drunken driving charges, they were associated with more misdemeanor DWIs for first-time offenders.

Opponents, however, say data shows that earlier closing times do not reduce DWI deaths. Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said that according to STOP DWI New York, Erie County recorded fewer DWI-related fatalities per capita than 47 out of 62 counties statewide.