Restaurant and bar owners opposed to the county's 10 percent tax on poured drinks opened a new front to punish politicians who supported the tax last year. At an April 14 event held at Jerry's 1888 Tavern on the North Side, the group announced the formation of a political action committee (PAC) to campaign against the reelection of tax-supporting officials.
The first target in their crosshairs: Brenda Frazier, the former county council member who is running for the state house in District 21
"I just don't buy it that there's no alternative to balance the county budget except to impose a new tax," said John Graf, owner of the Priory Hospitality Group and chairman of the new committee, called HosPAC.
"The people spoke loud and clear that they didn't want this tax," Graf said. "[The members of Allegheny County Council] weren't listening and they weren't willing to be creative."
The group's first visible efforts will be radio ads and rented billboard space to push the message: "Don't Vote for Brenda Frazier."
"It just happens that Brenda Frazier is the first person running," Graf explained. "It's our intention to challenge each and every person that voted for this tax."
"This is nothing new," Frazier says of the complaints. If she had it to do over again, she says, she would still vote in support of the tax. "There was no way for us to resolve the budget without taking other drastic measures.
"We had open hearings, we were accessible. But once the die was cast and it was time to pass the budget, the county couldn't go under just because we were too afraid to use the funding vehicles that were provided to us."
As unpopular as the tax is, says Frazier, the alternatives -- like a property-tax hike or cuts in mass transit -- were even worse. "If you want there not to be a budget, or cut backs in the [public] workforce, or cut backs in transportation … then I think more people would be after elected officials," she says.
To some extent, the county's hands were tied because the state legislation that allowed it to levy the drink tax specified what the county was able to tax.
"I think there should be more streams of funding that the county is allowed and that's one of the reasons I'm running," Frazier says. "I know the issues that are facing the county that would only have a remedy at the state level."
Graf said that HosPAC has raised $15,000 in pledges and actual cash to date, and, "We haven't even had a fundraiser yet."
But while the drink tax is almost universally unpopular among bar owners, there is some ambivalence about taking on Frazier. For one thing, the former county councilor has been a champion of GLBT causes, and it remains to be seen how bars that cater to GLBT patrons will respond.
"Being that it just came out today, I don't know that I can comment," says Gary Van Horn, owner of Images bar Downtown and an organizer of this year's PrideFest event. Van Horn says he's received a handful of calls asking his position on the Frazier fight. While he agrees the drink tax is "hurting this region," he adds that he's "not a one-issue voter. I think you have to look at the [candidate's] track record." The Frazier fight is an "interesting situation," he says, but adds that neither he nor any other GLBT bar owner he knows of is a member of HosPAC.
HosPAC has not yet endorsed either of Frazier's two Democratic rivals -- former City Council Member Len Bodack Jr. or former Pittsburgh Police Chief Dom Costa.
Neither Bodack nor Costa returned phone messages for comment April 14; however, all of the candidates were asked about the drink tax at a Feb. 6 forum in Millvale.
Bodack said that, as a former city legislator, he could empathize with the county councilors who had to make a tough vote: The drink tax was enacted so that the county could cover expenses at the Port Authority. Bodack also suggested that the Port Authority might need state oversight, to keep costs down and reduce the tax burden. Costa agreed, calling the tax "poor management."
After the April 22 primaries, HosPAC is going to ask candidates to sign a pledge, promising to do their "utmost to cause the repeal of the 10 percent Allegheny County Drink Tax and ... [to] oppose any attempt to create any new tax on the retail sale of alcoholic beverages whether by local, county, state, or federal government."
Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation Inc. -- a business league that Graf says is not affiliated with HosPAC, though there is some membership overlap -- issued a press release earlier this month charging the tax with hurting the county's "fragile economy."
Relying on data from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, FACT contended that in the first three months of the year there was a decline of $495,382 in alcohol beverages purchased within Allegheny County. At the same time, the release contends, liquor purchases increased in surrounding counties.
"The numbers are out," says Tom Pastorius, HosPAC treasurer and proprietor of Penn Brewery. "Business is fleeing out of Allegheny County because of this drink tax."
Frazier's critics, however, aren't going away.
Graf says he once supported Frazier, but "At this point, I don't see what she could do" to win bar owners back.