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Metro-east strip club owner says proposed $5-per-patron tax is unfair 

 
Belleville News Democrat
March 30, 2012
By Jennifer Bowen

There is a bill being considered by Illinois legislators that would add $5 to the cost of admittance into any strip club that serves alcohol.

Senate Bill 3488 would require the clubs to collect an additional $5 from every patron who enters the club and the additional fee would be used to help fund the services provided by community-based sexual assault prevention and response organizations.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon was at the Call For Help center in East St. Louis on Thursday to answer questions about the proposed bill.

"This bill has its origins in cutbacks in funding for human services," Simon explained. "Particularly the services that help the victims of sexual assault."

She said the bill is modeled after a similar bill in Texas that was challenged in state courts, which the Texas Supreme Court upheld. Those opposing the bill asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Texas Supreme Court's decision and the justices declined to hear the appeal. California is seeking a similar bill but is considering a $10-per-patron fee; Missouri has banned alcohol at strip clubs.

"We have a bill that protects the Constitutional rights of all involved as well as helps the victims of sexual assault," Simon said.

More than a dozen strip clubs operate in the metro-east, mostly in Brooklyn, Centreville, Sauget and Washington Park.

Michael Ocello, who owns five strip clubs in the metro-east, testified against the bill earlier this month before a senate committee.

"This $5 tax has the potential to cost jobs across the state," Ocello said.

He called the tax inherently unfair. He said the state could charge a small admission to every liquor license holder but wouldn't do that because of the strong opposition it would create.

"They can kind of bully our industry," he said.

Call For Help has lost 29 percent of its state funding due to budget cuts and expects to lose at least 10 percent more, said the organization's executive director, Cheryl Compton. The Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault lost $1.2 million in funding over the past three budget years.

"Which could mean more staff being cut," said Mindy Stratmann, program director at the center. "This fee would mean more funding coming to our center. The assaults are happening and the victims need somewhere to go. To lose more funding would be devastating. The services we provide are very, very important and this funding would provide the necessary services we offer."

There were 209 cases of forcible rape reported in 2010 in the counties covered by Call For Help, Compton said, and rape is reported in about 54 percent of the cases.

Why target strip clubs that serve alcohol?

"When Texas made its law they looked at a series of studies of strip clubs across the U.S.," she said. "What they found was that strip clubs that serve alcohol, or allow alcohol to be brought in, the violence really shoots up in the neighborhoods around them, including sexual assaults. The women who work at the clubs that serve alcohol are also often the victims of violence and assault."

Call For Help provides not only education in the community about sexual assault, but also offers 24-hours response to hundreds of victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse to residents of St. Clair, Madison, Monroe and Randolph counties every year through its Sexual Assault Victims Care Unit. Last year the organization reached 21,500 people through community education, 311 children and adults received direct services and 101 victim of sexual assault were assisted by volunteers at police stations and hospitals.

"Funding these programs is absolutely imperative so we can get the information out so women know they have a safe place to go," Compton said. "They need to know there is somewhere out there who can help them."

Simon said the sponsors of the bill are working with the strip clubs around the state and talking to representatives from those establishments.

"We talked to a representative of the strip clubs and he said 'We're not out to kill the bill, we're out to make it work,'" Simon said. "We are continuing to work through the legislative process to make it a workable bill."

When asked about how the additional $5 fee per patron could negatively impact the jobs at smaller establishments, Simon expressed concern over the possible impact on those establishments.

"The jobs I really want to protect are the jobs like Mindy's and the nine other staffers who work here," she said, referring to Call For Help.

The revenue from the fee would be deposited in a Sexual Assault Prevention Fund and distributed by the Department of Human Services.

More than half of the 129 strip clubs in Illinois do not hold liquor licenses, according to a statement given by Simon to the Public Health Committee about the bill. Those establishments that do not serve alcohol or allow alcohol to be consumed on the premises would not be impacted by the bill.

Ocello said if the bill passes, opponents will probably challenge it on First Amendment grounds.

"This is going to end up being a legal battle," he said.