The Airliner surrenders 21-ordinance exemption following PAULA struggle


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Following the city’s change in the accepted PAULA ratio earlier this year, the Airliner Bar and Restaurant surrendered its exemption to the 21-ordinance Monday.

Jim Rinella, the owner of the Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., said his establishment has had the exemption since the Iowa City City Council passed the 21-ordinance in 2010. City councilors voted earlier this year to reduce the acceptable PAULA ratio from 0.50 to 0.25, which went into effect May 1. Rinella said the establishment was unable to be at or below 0.25.

The exemption allowed patrons under 21 to enter the bar after 10 p.m.

"It was due to the high PAULA rate and partnering with the Iowa City police that upon their direction we surrendered our exemption," he said.

No other establishments with an exemption had a ratio above .25.

According to an Iowa City police and University of Iowa bar-check report from March, the Airliner had a PAULA ratio of 0.42 for the previous 12-month period. Local law enforcement recorded two PAULA violations in the bar in March and 44 over the last 12 months.

"Because of large crowds and a lack of doormen at times, we received a higher PAULA rate," Rinella said. "That’s just something that’s not acceptable to me. [The city was] going to take it away from us, anyways. We just didn’t have a way to get the [ratio] down to .25 or below."

Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said the department didn’t force the Airliner to surrender its exemption.

"They had decided to voluntarily turn in their exemption, but they can get it back," she said. "It was just a voluntary business decision on their part. Other businesses have done this where they’ve turned it in on their own."

Following the establishment of the 21-ordinance, Brotherton said, the police have continued to work with downtown bars to ensure a safe and legal atmosphere.

"We work with the bars all the time," she said. "We have an ongoing relationship with them."

Restaurants and other businesses can apply for an exemption if their food profits are 50 percent or greater of their business revenue. New businesses receive an automatic six-month exception to the 21-ordinance.

Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James, 118 E. Washington St., and a strong supporter of the 21-ordinance, said the ordinance and the 0.25 PAULA ratio are fair.

"We [have the exemption] but choose not to use it," she said. "Our purpose of it certainly was not to let minors in our bar. The exemption is for food. I think we’ve seen from the police statistics that’s not what [the exemption] is being used for."

According to city documents, alcohol sales represent roughly 40 percent of gross sales at Bo-James.

Without the exemption, Rinella said he anticipates his business will see a significant decrease both in sales and patrons.

"I would for sure say our night life volume will be cut down … I would anticipate by at least 50 percent, if not more," he said. "We will definitely take a hit on the volume, I’m not happy about it, but we do what the police and the City Council tell us to do."

And despite voluntarily surrendering the bar’s exemption, Rinella said he plans to reapply for another exception to the 21-ordinance as soon as he is able.

"As soon as the police and City Council would allow us, we would reapply for the exemption," he said. "Whatever they tell us, we’ll do. It’s extremely important that we’re a responsible business within the community, and we partner with the police and we do things right."