State College

Most of the crime in State College is alcohol related. Who’s paying the tab?

More from the series

Exploring the Cost of Alcohol

State College exists because of Penn State. But along with the many positives of living in a university town, there are negatives, too. A major one is the cost of alcohol use. “The Cost of Alcohol,” a multipart series from the Centre Daily Times, explores the financial and human burdens that come with it.

Thousands of people came into State College a couple weeks ago to enjoy the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, patronize their favorite establishments and meet up with old friends.

As people were perusing the festival by day and partying by night, State College police officers and borough staff were busy behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly and the neighborhoods and festival grounds remained clean and safe.

Although State College supports events and activities like Arts Fest and Penn State football games that bring guests and business into the community, the borough itself doesn’t reap any of the economic benefits, and pays for the cost of excessive alcohol use and partying.

“When we have visitors in the community, it’s great for the community, certainly, it’s good for a lot of businesses in the community, but there’s no economic benefit directly to those municipalities,” borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. “And it’s generally out-of-pocket costs that our property owners and taxpayers pay for.”

Those costs, Fountaine said, come not only in the form of higher taxes, but also in human and community costs, such as having to wait longer for medical treatment when emergency medical services are backed up and paying for potential property damage to yards or vehicles.

“When we talk about the costs, the cost incurred by municipality — EMS, homeowners and property damage, community consequences in indirect and direct costs — the municipality just simply doesn’t get any revenue from those sources to offset those costs at all,” Fountaine said.

State College, along with other Pennsylvania college towns, have lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature for the authority to levy local taxes — on alcohol, hotels or local sales — to create an alternative revenue stream to allow them to continue hosting large events and maintain the day-to-day issues that pop up in a college town.

However, the tax has gotten nowhere in the legislature.

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Without an alternative revenue source, Fountaine said the borough’s two main options to cover expenses are to raise property taxes or cut personnel.

And when it comes to personnel cuts, it’s the police department — those who most directly respond to negative effects of alcohol — that often gets cut.

How much crime in State College is alcohol related?

As in most college towns, State College police officers deal with a high number of alcohol-related crimes and calls for service.

According to Community Relations Officer Adam Salyards, about 74 percent of all police calls in any given year are alcohol related. In the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,777 alcohol-related arrests, which he says is comparable to the past five years.

“Alcohol issues in a college town are a big concern for us, our department, our town,” he said. “Honestly the majority of our calls in one way or another are alcohol-related issues.”

Unlike in large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, State College has a low amount of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation calls Index crimes — willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny over $50, motor vehicle theft and arson.

However, the amount of total crimes in State College is driven up by Part II crimes, such as criminal mischief, simple assault, vandalism, stolen property, public indecency, drug violations, DUI, liquor law infractions, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

A look at data from a staffing study commissioned by State College police in 2011 illustrates just how much those Part II crimes add up.

Data from 2011 shows that in terms of Index crimes reported per 1,000 residents, State College is low compared with Pennsylvania as a whole: 18 to 26. But when it comes to total crimes, State College has 112 to Pennsylvania’s 73.

Although Part II crimes are considered lesser offenses, they still can cause destruction to a community.

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Phoebe Sheehan Centre Daily Times, file

“We know when we last looked it at, it was millions of dollars of impact; all of the destruction and the injury and the alcohol-related (incidents), it’s not just the people having to go to the hospital, it’s the fights, assaults, sexual assaults, vandalism, noise — it’s all those types of things that take a toll both within quality of life and we have to have many extra officers because of that,” said Tom King, assistant borough manager of public safety and former State College police chief.

A large amount of those alcohol-related arrests happen during the first 10 weeks of the fall semester — Penn State football season.

According to data taken from the first 10 weeks of the 2017 fall semester, 1,353 total crimes and ordinance violations were reported.

The 1,147 Part II crimes included:

  • 335 for noise
  • 152 for liquor law infractions
  • 104 for public drunkenness
  • 69 for public urination
  • 47 for open container
  • 37 for driving under the influence
  • 29 for drug violations
  • 8 for furnishing alcohol
  • 366 other

There were 206 Index crimes, including 15 rapes or sexual assaults.

“It does come at a manpower cost, because it’s basically an all-hands-on-deck type of event, whether it’s Arts Fest or football, at some point or another over football weekend, every officer in our department will be working, whether it’s a normal scheduled work day or if it’s overtime,” Salyards said. “So as you can imagine, it can come with a pretty high price tag.”

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Kevin Scott McClatchy graphic

Are there enough officers?

Right now, State College has 62 officers, which is its full-budgeted amount.

“There was a period when we were below our full strength in our police department. There was a period when we were significantly down in terms of the number of officers we had to respond. That number is a little bit better in the current budget,” Fountaine said. “This year, we’re fully staffed with one vacancy coming up with a retirement. So we’re back but those costs are absorbed by the residents in State College.”

State College last cut police positions with its 2015 budget, when it eliminated funding for two officers and a records clerk, along with one and a half positions in the financial services division and a real estate tax increase, in order to “reduce budget deficit and maintain stable operations.”

“It’s a complex picture,” Fountaine said about how much alcohol-related issues affected the decision to slash positions. “The impacts and the costs of dealing with those issues are a significant portion, but overall the costs of providing services to the community create those kinds of strains on the budget and one of those areas we’ve historically looked at is reducing personnel because a majority of budget goes to fund personnel-related costs. So when we have these types of issues, it usually ends up resulting in personnel cuts.”

The police department makes up the bulk of the borough’s expenses, at 38 percent of $27,476,703.

Although State College is back to its full budgeted number of police officers, 62 is still below the 65-69 range that the 2011 staffing study determined is ideal for State College with its population and volume of calls for service.

According to the study, State College had 1.19 sworn officers per 1,000 people, well below most of the other college towns surveyed, such as Evanston, Ill., Morgantown, W.Va., and Stillwater, Okla., which had 2.22, 1.96 and 1.69, respectively.

Chad Cowder Centre Daily Times graphic

To help make up for not having its full complement, State College has a cooperative agreement with neighboring police departments and Penn State, and also gets assistance from state police to help with big-event weekends or large incidents.

But the consequence of having fewer full-time officers than what the staffing study suggested, King said, is that most policing ends up being reactive and fewer resources are spent on prevention.

“As calls increase, you end up becoming much more responsive with less ability to do the proactive policing that this community needs and really has an expectation for,” King said.

Who pays for increased enforcement?

At 4.56 square miles, the Borough of State College is home to 42,034 people, according to the most recent census data in 2010.

Of those 42,034 people, there are 12,610 households — 3,069 family, 9,541 nonfamily and 4,323 single people — giving the borough a limited real estate tax base for its population.

As real estate taxes account for the the largest source of the borough’s revenue at 26.1 percent, the makeup and demographics of State College don’t leave a lot of other options when it comes to increasing revenue. Renters in the borough, who are often students and use services in the event of alcohol misuse, don’t pay for those services.

The borough hasn’t raised real estate taxes since the 2 mill increase in the 2016 budget, but financial projections show “financial stress” for the next five years as the Capital Improvement Plan is only partially funded and there’s an average ongoing funding gap of approximately $2 million per year until 2023, according to the budget.

“Only in the past year or so has there been a little bit of stabilization in the overall budget picture because we’ve increased the values of some of the buildings and some of the real estate transfers that have occurred, but that’s a short-term solution,” Fountaine said. “And it still hasn’t addressed the fact that in the police department especially, you’re seeing a significant burden of cost related specifically to alcohol-related issues.”

Alternative revenue sources, however — such as a tax on alcohol, either poured drink or at the retail level — have not been popular in the business community, or in the legislature. So as for now, any talk of a local tax is purely hypothetical.

What can be done to decrease crime without increasing property taxes?

An attempt to increase efforts and partnerships devoted to curtailing the effects of dangerous drinking stepped up in the early 2000s, King said, after a few high-profile alcohol-related deaths and injuries — including the death outside the Rathskeller in 2003 and the fatal stabbing inside Club Love in 2005.

One of the longest-running partnerships State College police has is with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board through its Source Investigation Program. For the past 15 years, State College has received a $20,000 grant from the state to cover overtime detail to crack down on liquor law violations, such as furnishing alcohol to minors.

To address the high rate of EMS calls and alcohol-related crimes tied to the student-created drinking holiday State Patty’s Day, which began in 2007, State College and Penn State created the Campus-Community Partnership United Against Dangerous Drinking. Through the partnership, local bars and restaurants received compensation to not serve alcohol during the holiday for a few years, area liquor stores closed their doors, police reinforced a zero-tolerance policy and Greek life and student organizations stepped up to help change the culture around the event.

Pickle’s was among the bars in State College to not be open for the student created holiday of State Patty’s Day on Saturday, March 1, 2014. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

The Campus-Community Partnership has had tangible results, as total State Patty’s Day crime is down 50.9 percent from 2011 to 2018, arrest/citations are down 42.7 percent, DUI arrests 85.7 percent, and alcohol overdose cases at Mount Nittany are down 41 percent just in the past year.

“These programs help address the problem, but there’s not a program that will eliminate it,” King said. “So the best we can do is try to minimize injuries, minimize damage and minimize the cost to taxpayers.”

Borough residents interviewed for this CDT series said they generally enjoy living in their neighborhoods, and appreciate programs initiated to keep the area clean and safe and to foster mutual respect between student and nonstudent residents.

Particular programs residents were quick to point out include the nuisance property ordinance, the Neighborhood Enforcement and Alcohol Team and Living In One Neighborhood initiatives.

“I think we’ve seen improvements, data would tend to show improvement, but it hasn’t eradicated the issue,” Highlands Civic Association President Mark Huncik said. “I believe there’s still more that can be done.”

To maintain the downward trend in alcohol-related issues on big weekends, King said he’d like to see State College add more police officers, while not burdening residents with further property tax increases.

“If we had the ability to implement a tax, we’d certainly be able to achieve our complement of 65-69 officers.” he said. “Clearly that would allow us to do that. Financially, there’s only so much you can put on the backs of property owners.”

Fountaine continued: “And I would even go as far as to say that in looking at how you balance that, is that there would be the potential to do some property tax relief to the property owners in State College.

“It’s not that we’re saying we need to add more money, although budget strains in a municipality like State College are always going to be prevalent because we’re built out and we don’t have any room to grow, but with that additional revenue coming from a tax on alcohol or a tax on hotel nights or a sales tax or something like that could offset property tax to help reduce the property tax burden in the community.”