Saying he was concerned it could lead to more alcohol-fueled violence, Mayor Paul Soglin on Monday vetoed a liquor license for a Taco Bell Cantina on State Street and expressed opposition to fast-food restaurants serving alcohol at all.
“I see little public value in issuing a liquor license to Taco Bell and enormous costs to the people of our community and, in turn, to city government,” Soglin said at a Monday afternoon news conference. “If the license was associated with something of value — a new hotel, a fine restaurant — that’d be another thing.”
Soglin has been consistent in his call to end issuing licenses for new taverns in the State Street area, citing the costs of alcohol-related problems and his concern about declining retail along the pedestrian mall. He also said he is “emphatically” against fast-food chains attempting to serve alcohol anywhere in the city.
“I really believe that we can preserve the character of this community and this city in terms of having quality retail,” Soglin said. “I’m not ready to concede that brick-and-mortar retail is dead.”
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During a Dec. 5 meeting, the City Council on a voice vote overwhelmingly approved a license for a Taco Bell Cantina to sell wine and beer at 534 State St.
Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, voted against the license based on the location and alcohol-fueled problems surrounding it. Soglin was out of town for that meeting, but he had expressed his objections to the license in a memo.
It takes 14 of 20 council votes to override a mayoral veto. Council president Marsha Rummel said the veto is likely to be challenged and she expected there would be enough votes to overturn it.
In a letter Monday explaining his veto, Soglin suggested that “perhaps we should take this matter of the issuance of liquor licenses to public referendum.” He did not elaborate during the news conference.
Pat Eulberg, a representative for the company franchising the Taco Bell Cantina, said he had just heard about Soglin’s decision Monday afternoon. While he declined to comment on the veto, Eulberg said he respects the local government process for how restaurants are licensed.
He noted the restaurant still plans on opening around Christmas regardless of whether it has a liquor license by then.
Taco Bell Cantinas typically have a different decor than regular Taco Bells, are located in urban business districts and serve alcohol. In Madison, the restaurant will serve burritos and tacos into the early morning hours, but the license would not allow beer and wine sales after 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays or past 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.
At the Dec. 5 meeting, Eulberg said he believes the company has done enough to address safety concerns by installing 17 security cameras and scanners for identification cards, as well as by training employees. The State Street location would become the ninth Taco Bell Cantina in the United States.
Soglin said the city has spent more than $20 million to beautify and enhance State Street and the Capitol Square, and that such an investment makes sense to attract retail shoppers during the day and on weekends but makes no sense for an area populated by taverns.
The mayor said public safety is the city’s first priority, with the recently adopted Police Department budget the largest for the agency on record.
Despite a significant drop in homicides in the past four months, the police department is still “stretched and responding to too many violent incidents on Friday and Saturday nights,” Soglin said.
The police, he said, have special units operating in the 500 block of State Street, the 400 block of Frances Street and the 600 block of University Avenue. The situation is so dangerous that there were times when officers couldn’t apprehend dangerous individuals because of alcohol-fueled crowds, he said.
Soglin said it has been “a miracle that we have not had a homicide in that area.”
“The cost of patrols in the hours around bar time is exorbitant,” he said. “Adding more liquor outlets to this area, even if that particular outlet like the Taco Bell were to close early, makes no sense.”
The Taco Bell Cantina license, Soglin said, is just the beginning. Most U.S. fast-food chains are working on rolling out liquor-based establishments in the next decade, with some doing so in stages with beer and wine followed by full liquor, he said.
“This is not about serving the best interest of the people of our community,” Soglin said. “It’s a corporation plan from Taco Bell to make money.”