West Chester seeking tax on alcohol

Posted: May 19, 2013

In West Chester and college towns across the state, there's never a short supply of alcohol - or patrons bellying up to the bar.

But that's not the case when it comes to funds for local law enforcement and public works - and West Chester's borough council is hoping to persuade the state legislature to allow it to institute a drink tax of up to 10 percent to help cover those costs.

The move comes as Mayor Nutter has proposed increasing the tax on alcoholic drinks in city bars from 10 percent to 15 percent to aid city schools.

It's an initiative that many college towns have tried and failed to pass. While major cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh can (and do) hike taxes on booze to cover budget holes, boroughs like West Chester rely solely on local income and real estate taxes.

And in a college town like West Chester, where 40 percent of property is university-related and tax-exempt, that means officials are often short of funds.

"With 39 liquor licenses in 1.8 square miles, we do not receive a penny from our sale of alcohol to help serve and protect the people of the borough," said Mayor Carolyn Comitta. "The request is for the state legislature to not necessarily require an additional liquor or drink tax, but to make it a local option."

Some local bar owners aren't pleased with the proposal.

"I don't think there's a single bar in West Chester that would agree to pay more taxes," said Justin Dougherty, who owns the Side Bar on East Gay Street. "Small businesses are what run this town, and to impose a tax on people that aren't big business. ... It's tough sometimes in a small town."

Persuading lawmakers to give the borough the option will be something of an uphill battle as well. In State College, home to Pennsylvania State University's main campus, local government officials have tried several times over the last five years to institute a drink tax. Each time they've been unable to make any headway in Harrisburg.

"Alcohol and alcohol offenses drive so much of the public services cost we have," said Tom Fountaine, State College's borough manager. "Two-thirds of the crime in State College is driven by alcohol. It really is a case where simply passing that kind of a bill makes sense - so there's the ability to recover some of that cost."

But as the legislature discusses privatizing state liquor sales, Comitta and mayors like her are hoping that lawmakers would consider including "a revenue stream for local law enforcement to manage the additional challenges that will be presented with the privatization."

"This tax has not moved forward as an independent idea, but we're hoping that perhaps through this privatization bill it will reopen the conversation and raise awareness of the need for funding for local law enforcement," Comitta said.

Comitta said she's proud of West Chester's growth in recent years into a county hot spot for dining, entertainment, and nightlife. But with that growth, she said, comes additional costs to the city.

"Bar owners have a concern that it will hurt their business, and I understand that," she said. "The community would need to get together and talk about what works in our town - maybe 5 percent would be more appropriate and work better for everybody. There would need to be a decision made that everybody could live with."


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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