The city of Tuscaloosa is closed to new bars after the City Council voted without much ceremony to stop approving new applications for the rest of 2023.

The move has been in the works for weeks as the council, Mayor Walt Maddox and Chief Brent Blankley continue trying to reverse a perpetual shortage of officers at the Tuscaloosa Police Department.

Blankley and Maddox have said Tuscaloosa's several dozen bars are drawing resources away from a chronically understaffed department, where there have been roughly 30 officer vacancies for years - even as new police are hired, others quit, retire or take other offers.

TPD officers often work mandatory, late overtime shifts to keep order on the Strip and downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and Maddox has told the council those shifts are being used as a recruitment tool to pull officers away from TPD.

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This idea that the bars are responsible for retention issues at the police department came up a few times earlier this year when Blankley urged the council to not allow new businesses like Grandstand and Druid City Social to act as half-restaurant, half-bars known as gastropubs.

Every new business looking to operate as a bar or gastropub in Tuscaloosa has to get conditional approval from the council to do so, and pressure over the issue has built as Blankley cited TPD's officer shortage as justification to oppose almost applicant this year.

Earlier in June, the council began to signal they did not want to be accused of favoritism.

"That was my position and it still is," District 4 Councilman Lee Busby said Tuesday. "I'd prefer that we did not get in the business of picking and choosing. That's a losing game. Let's stop the bleeding, put the tourniquet on, take an operational pause, take a step back and see what we're going to do to buffet the police force."

"Then we can open that spigot back up," Busby said.

So city attorney Scott Holmes drafted a moratorium to stop approving new bars until 2024, and the council adopted it Tuesday night in a 5-2 vote.

"There are growing concerns regarding the adverse effect to public safety related to the proliferation of bars/taverns and gastropubs within the city of Tuscaloosa," the resolution reads. "The current workload of the Tuscaloosa Police Department has reached a point where their resources are stretched too thin to effectively address public safety issues associated with increased alcohol-based establishments."

Holmes also said the moratorium will allow city staff to come up with a comprehensive, legal plan about how to meaningfully address the issue, including potentially reducing the hours of operation at bars in Tuscaloosa or putting a limit on their maximum capacity.

It was also stressed that this ban could be ended - or extended! - at any time with four votes of the seven-member council.

"If we have a moratorium and the staff comes up with a good idea or a plan we all like the first of September, we can end the moratorium then, we don't have to go to December 31st," Councilman John Faile said. "We've got plenty of paper and ink."

The council did not discuss the measure before their vote at the Tuesday night meeting. Councilmen Cassius Lanier and Norman Crow voted against the moratorium. The other five council members were all present and voted in favor.

As of Tuesday, the approval of all conditional use applications from bars, taverns or gastropubs will be suspended until January 1st, 2024.

For more on this move as it develops, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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