Inquirer Editorial: Strip clubs' tax dodge is theater of the absurd

Backstage? A manager at Delilah's, one of the strip clubs resisting city tax enforcement efforts, talks to one of the club's dancers in 2005. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Backstage? A manager at Delilah's, one of the strip clubs resisting city tax enforcement efforts, talks to one of the club's dancers in 2005. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 30, 2013

Maybe city officials shouldn't be proud of cracking down on back taxes for so-called lap dances. But they have far less to be ashamed of than the allegedly tax-dodging "gentlemen's" establishments.

Oddly, though, it's the strip clubs that have been boldly making the case for tax-free titillation, even summoning the chutzpah to posit lap dancing as a form of contemporary theater. (No, really.) City officials, meanwhile, have been comparatively sheepish, almost as if they had been caught frequenting the joints rather than taxing them.

From smoking to drinking to gambling, taxes are levied on all sorts of activities that a substantial portion of society finds distasteful. And it's the city's job - one it hasn't always done well - to see to it that every tax is paid according to the law. Lap-dance taxes aren't the city's most palatable or important revenue stream, but going after them suggests a healthy trend toward more vigorous and uniform municipal tax collection.

City officials argue that the fees patrons pay strippers to undulate atop them are subject to the 5 percent amusement tax, which applies to ballgames, concerts, movies, and other diversions. They say an audit found that three strip clubs owe about $1.5 million.

The clubs maintain that they pay the tax on door charges but don't owe it on dance fees, which are split between the strippers and the venues. Last week, in a bravura performance before the city's Tax Review Board, lawyers representing Club Risque, Delilah's, and Cheerleaders argued that their services fall under an amusement-tax exemption for "legitimate contemporary American theater."

Expert witness Katherine Profeta, a Queens College drama professor, directed the board's attention to the "technical virtuosity" on display in this "multifocal, immersive theater experience." Even less convincingly, attorney George Bochetto noted, "American contemporary theater has lots of exotic-type things, sexually provocative things, a great deal of nakedness." He added, "There are many plays on Broadway which ... are designed for sexual arousal" - none of which means you should attempt to reward anyone in the cast of Death of a Salesman by sticking a twenty down his drawers.

Bochetto has been publicly and vociferously objecting to this supposed attack on the arts since the Daily News first reported the story. Meanwhile, the city declined even to explain its side for more than a week. A city lawyer did, however, materialize at last week's hearing to note helpfully that lap dancing suffers by comparison with classical ballet.

City Hall often seems more willing to create and raise taxes than to collect them; property and parking taxes are among the most famously ignored. All told, the city is owed an estimated half a billion dollars in revenue.

Mayor Nutter and City Council have begun to address this, including by hiring the city's first chief collection officer. It's another encouraging sign that Philadelphia's tax laws - much like lap dancing - are not theater.

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