As Tucson City Council members wrestle with a troublesome budget, Ward 6 City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff has her eye on a sexy new revenue enhancement: A fee on cover charges at local strip clubs.
In a memo fired off to City Manager Mike Letcher last week, Trasoff asked the city staff to probe whether a tax on "per-person fee(s) to adult entertainment venues" was on firm legal ground and, if so, how a fee ranging from $1.50 to $5 would fluff up the city budget.
"We have to be creative in understanding how to find alternative sources of revenue that are not going to hit those who can least afford it the hardest," Trasoff says.
On a slow Sunday night at Curves Cabaret, reaction to Trasoff's pole tax was mixed among the women at work.
"That's fucked up," said K.B., a buxom dancer with a background in finance. "Do you think they're going to use it on anything that benefits us? It's just going to line their pockets. Why don't they tax the churches, all the money in that plate they pass around?"
The willowy Gemini was less critical of the idea.
"It's a luxury, so why not try it and see what happens?" she said. "If it's too high, and business dries up, they'll have to get rid of it."
But Gemini was skeptical that the tax would amount to much, because the club's crowds have shrunk as the nation's economy has deflated.
Mike Pavon, the owner of Curves, confirms that he's facing hard times, with revenues falling off 30 percent from where they were four years ago.
"If this tax goes in, it's going to really hurt," says Pavon. "Guys will quit coming in. This is not a recession-proof business."
His troubles notwithstanding, Pavon says it's unfair to put the squeeze on his industry.
"We think it would be more fair if they decided to put a tax on every patron who went into Sullivan's or Macaroni Grill or any place that has a liquor license," Pavon says. "Then you can at least say it's a liquor-oriented tax. But to just say that every patron, no matter whether they spend $10 or $500, is going to have to pay the same $5 cover charge back to the city—I don't think that's fair. They're already getting sales tax from us."
He added that the nature of his business makes him an attractive target.
"People in government know that no one is going to rush to the aid of adult entertainment," Pavon says. "But it all comes down to First Amendment rights—the right of free speech and self-expression—and it all comes down to how much control do you want from the government?"
Pavon points out that a similar law in Texas has been tied up in the courts since it was passed two years ago. A federal district court ruling that the law is unconstitutional is under appeal by the state, and a compromise bill is now under consideration by the Texas Legislature.
"Is it constitutional?" Pavon asks. "Well, that would be up to a judge to determine, but you can bet that the adult-entertainment industry in this town isn't going to just sit down and do nothing about it."
City Attorney Mike Rankin was still researching the city's legal position this week, but he acknowledged that, in light of the Texas case, the city could face a legal challenge if the fee were implemented.
Trasoff responds: "I don't want to do something that's just for show that's going to be overturned by the courts. I want something that's substantive and that's going to work. If we need to broaden our approach to avoid constitutional issues, that's something that I'm exploring already with the city attorney."
Trasoff's pole-tax proposal comes as City Council members are struggling to get a grip on a budget crisis brought on by limp sales-tax collections. In an effort to boost the city's vitality, the council is massaging a staff proposal that includes a rent tax on housing, higher taxes on utilities and stiffer fees for park use, recreational classes, trash collection and bus fares.
At a hearing on the proposed budget last month, the council faced an explosive crowd that included members of the nascent teabag movement, who were particularly critical of the rent tax.
Pavon says members of the council are trying to compensate for their financial shortcomings.
"They're only doing this because of the position they're in," Pavon says. "If we were in an economic boom, they wouldn't even be considering this tax. Are they going to dispense with the tax once economic health comes back? I doubt it. Once they institute taxes, they don't generally get rid of them."