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Most speakers at Legislature hearing back earlier bar-closing time

Erie County’s 4 a.m. last call at bars was reassessed Tuesday evening for the first time since it was put into effect in the late 1970s.

During a public hearing in Old County Hall, county legislators heard from law enforcement officials, block club leaders and prominent downtown developers, among others, many of whom advocated moving up the bar-closing time by two hours to 2 a.m. as a way to decrease incidents of driving while intoxicated and improve quality of life for residents.

“Very few good things happen after 1 or 2 in the morning,” said Orchard Park Police Chief Mark Pacholec, who was the second of more than 40 public speakers. “We see a rise in impairment, whether by alcohol or drugs. We see a higher level of intoxication in our DWIs.”

Pacholec said a department survey of 14 bars and restaurants in the town showed that 10 of them also favored a 2 a.m. closing time.

Other law enforcement officers who spoke in support of an earlier closing included retired Buffalo Police Officer Ed Cotter, who said assaults and public nuisance crimes spike after 2 a.m., which taxes police resources.

In the Town of Evans, which includes many lakefront bars, Police Chief Ernest Masulla said he sees a rise in assaults and domestic incidents during those early-morning hours, along with an increase in noise complaints.

Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, via a spokesperson, said statistics show that most DWIs occur in the hours after “happy hour” and between midnight and 2 a.m. and doubted that an earlier bar closing time would have an effect.

“I strongly believe that the most effective way to change a community standard is with increased public awareness, law enforcement resources and offer fewer leniencies to those convicted of DWI offenses,” said Scott Zylka, the sheriff’s spokesman.

Lawmakers had come under criticism for discouraging public input after they voted 7-4 last month against bringing a bar closing measure to the floor for a deciding vote, so they decided to hold a public hearing so that all sides could be heard.

Legislator Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga, sponsored the measure to move up the bar closing time. But he said last month that he has been unable to persuade most of his fellow legislators to support the bill.

Legislators on Tuesday also heard from people personally affected by alcohol-related crashes who support an earlier closing time. Steven Roller’s son David, 29, was thrown from his pickup in a head-on collision at 4:20 a.m. May 2 on Clinton Street in West Seneca and died at the scene.

“David wasn’t quite yet 30, and now he’s dead and the other two drivers are incarcerated,” the Auburn resident said. “All because of drunk driving long after the time that they should have been in bed. After the funeral, I got to thinking ‘Why are bars still open that late?’ ”

Meanwhile, neighborhood group leaders maintained that the issue is one of quality of life for residents who live near bars and restaurants that are open late.

Jonathan White, president of the Allentown Association, told legislators about residents’ repeated complaints of loud noise, crowds congregating on main and side streets and intoxicated individuals found sleeping in their driveways, front porches and backyards. Property damage, theft, public urination, fights and other destructive behaviors are also recurring problems, he said.

“The impact on the quality of life for residents is immeasurable and we firmly believe that an earlier closing time will severely mitigate these negative activities,” he said.

Downtown developers Rocco Termini and Carl Paladino also spoke out in favor of an earlier closing time. Termini said downtown now has 2,000 residents who don’t want to hear loud music, rowdiness on the street or witness public urination.

Paladino said late hours in bars offer patrons a gateway into drugs, including opioids.

“This is about the culture and the atmosphere in our community that we as the private sector and the public sector leaders have a responsibility to this community to do the right thing,” he said. “And the right thing is to close these bars at 2 o’clock and give these kids an opportunity to enter the workplace and enter a life before they get caught up in some other culture.”

On the other hand, downtown bar owner Mark Croce, who wants to keep the current 4 a.m. closing, said a reduction in hours would hurt the incomes of hospitality workers.

A vote on Morton’s resolution is scheduled for Thursday.