Officials discuss challenges of limiting liquor licenses in S.S.
Efforts to manage the proliferation of alcohol establishments in the South Side Flats often encounter a brick wall: a mixture of politics, regulations, bureaucracy, legalities, and well-funded opposition forces who can afford specialized legal representation.
On Jan. 30, members of the various governing bodies discussed the challenges to instituting permanent solutions to the area’s liquor license saturation and its upshot: increased crime.
There is a clear relationship between the number of liquor licenses and the total crime in the Flats, city Councilman Bruce Kraus stated in his presentation.
“We are hemorrhaging public safety dollars trying to handle this,” he said.
The two-hour gathering at the Brashear Center was the second in a series of public safety meetings conducted by the South Side Community Council (SSCC).
In addition to Mr. Kraus, the panel consisted of Patrick Riley, PA Liquor Control Board (PLCB); state Rep. Jake Wheatley; state Rep. Harry Readshaw; Michelle Traficante, representing state Sen. Jay Costa; and Keith Wehner, representing state Sen. Wayne Fontana.
“There are no quick solutions,” Mr. Riley said of the Flats’ alcohol-fueled problems.
Regardless, as the evening unfolded, reasons for optimism emerged.
The new mayor, Bill Peduto, is “one-hundred fifty percent committed to resources needed to resolve this situation,” Mr. Kraus said.
State House Bill 0262 which Mr. Readshaw introduced, and which allows local municipalities to establish liquor license saturation limitations and permits, passed its committee by a unanimous vote.
While it faces a years-long and precarious uphill battle, the bill is in a position to be voted on in the House of Representatives.
Another reason for optimism is the South Side Bar and Restaurant Association which, president Mike Paparella said, is dedicated to a safe and vibrant district for residents and businesses. The organization provides $250,000 for off-duty police details on East Carson St ., and is working to make the operation more effective.
Mr. Paparella asked attendees to give him the names of problem establishments, and he would address their issues.
The meeting began with Mr. Riley discussing liquor licensing processes, and what residents can do to protest their issuance.
In the transfer of an existing license to a new owner, the PLCB looks at ownership, reputation, financing, and premise layout. Protests may only be based on the reputation of the applicant(s).
In the transfer of a license to a new location in the South Side, the transaction is closely scrutinized.
“We recognize the issues you are facing in the neighborhood,” Mr. Riley said.
Protests in such transfers may be based on reputation and the impact on the neighborhood.
Those who may protest the approval of a license include: residents within 500 feet of the proposed licensed premises; restrictive institutions within 300 feet, including churches, schools, public parks; and other alcoholic beverage licensees located within 200 feet.
Any person with a definite interest may file a petition to intervene stating good cause for objection within 30 days of notice posting.
Protests to licensure require a hearing before a hearing examiner, at which time those protesting must demonstrate how the license would negatively affect the health and welfare of the neighborhood. The applicant side would also be presented.
The examiner makes a recommendation to the PLCB. The decision by the PLCB can be appealed to county court.
Licenses are issued for two-year periods. The PLCB may refuse to renew them based on: operational history; citations; and input from the district attorney, police and affected residents.
Mr. Riley said the best evidence is police reports.
“It can’t be hearsay. Evidence is what we need,” he said.
Mr. Kraus, who has worked well with Mr. Riley on licensing issues, said he respectfully took issue with the protestation process of the PLCB.
In one case in which he and local state officials actively opposed the granting of a license on the basis it would raise the number of bar stools to 3,400 in a small geographic area, it was nonetheless granted.
In his presentation, Mr. Kraus showed graphs depicting the dramatic rise in crime in the Flats between 1990 and 2013.
There was more total crime in years when more liquor licenses were issued, he said. Crime includes simple assaults, thefts, drunk driving, vandalism and more.
Mr. Kraus called his comments “pro-business.”
“I hear ‘unsafe’ from people all the time about the Flats, and that is bad for business.
“We have a great business district, and should be working to make it safe,” he said.
He mentioned a tavern which had been the focus of numerous complaints and citations, but which the community was not able to shut down; that is, until an employee was critically cut across his stomach in a stabbing during a fight with a patron.
The injured man was holding his intestines when the police arrived.
“That is bad business,” Mr. Kraus said.
In his brief comments, Mr. Wheatley said just because an idea is rational does not mean it is the norm in Harrisburg.
The reality, he said, is that Democrats are not the majority party in state government. For that reason, many worthwhile bills will not see the light of day if the majority party does not want them.
As Mr. Riley later said, changes must be through legislation, and it is hard to make happen.
In the public comment session, Mr. Riley was asked if protests can be filed via email. He replied yes.
To a complaint about a change of ownership without the establishment posting orange placards about it, he said to get the information to SSCC president Cathy Mitchell, who would pass on to him to look into.
In response to a comment earlier from Mr. Paparella’s about the large rise in property values since 2008, Mr. Kraus said while it is true property values have increased, so have rentals as investment properties, giving rise to additional problems.
An attendee said using revenue from evening parking to support a paid staff in the South Side to deal with the bar saturation problem is being considered.
Another attendee commented such resources are needed to sit down across from bar owners and their skilled lawyers.
In conclusion, Mrs. Mitchell asked Mr. Readshaw what residents could do to move his House bill along.
He suggested calling legislators in support of it, and starting a petition.
The bill is not yet scheduled for a vote.