'Unofficial' taxes city law enforcement, but revenue is a byproduct
CHAMPAIGN — Days before he planned to celebrate an early St. Patrick's Day, Matt Novak bought a T-shirt.
A leprechaun, showing off his overflowing mug of beer and poking out from behind an orange banner that read "Unofficial 2012." Stamped across the standard Kelly green material that thousands of partyers wore on Friday is a reminder of where they'll be partying: Champaign, Illinois.
The shirt cost him $10 plus sales tax.
Not far behind him, a girl carried three T-shirts to the cash register: "Kiss me," above the Illinois logo. Each cost her $10 plus sales tax.
Behind her, customers at T.I.S. College Bookstore browsed the display. Short sleeve T-shirts, $10. Long-sleeve shirts, $20. Hooded sweatshirts, $30. Not far away hung green baseball caps, bead necklaces and temporary clover tattoos.
Public safety aside, it's hard to nail down the financial costs and benefits of Unofficial. But city officials this year referred to managing the party instead of stopping it altogether, and Mayor Don Gerard says shutting down campus for a day would be "egregiously irresponsible to local business."
Novak thought ahead to his plans for Friday: a couple of kegs, and anywhere from six to 20 guests at his five-bedroom house. He's a senior, and he and thousands of others have bought Unofficial-related gear for years.
"Wednesday through Friday, it'll be a majority of our sales," T.I.S. store manager Brian Paragi said.
Nobody tracks the economic impact of Unofficial St. Patrick's Day like they would an Illini football weekend or the Illinois Marathon.
"We don't track events that aren't endorsed by the university or the city," said Jayne DeLuce, president of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Champaign city officials say the day is a huge public safety risk, not a docile revenue generator like Ebertfest. They treat it as such: a law enforcement problem rather than a side effect of a more-positive event.
But untold numbers of students and out-of-town visitors spent their day in bars and restaurants, hundreds were ticketed by Champaign police, and all those tax dollars and fines go somewhere.
What the city makes
In 2011, police issued 350 tickets for city of Champaign violations on Unofficial St. Patrick's Day; if all those tickets were paid, they would total $97,570 in new revenue.
It's not clear, however, how much of the fines the city actually recovered, City Attorney Frederick Stavins said.
The majority of the tickets — 198 of the 350 — were issued to minors the police found in possession of alcohol. Over the course of the entire year, the city settled 90 percent of underage alcohol offenses before they went to court. Each carries a $320 fine, and if the proportion remained true for tickets on Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, underage drinking tickets alone would net about $57,000.
Another bulk of the tickets — 79 of the 350 — were issued for possession of an open container of alcohol on public property, which carries a $175 fine. Throughout the year, the city settled 58 percent of those cases out of court. At that rate, the 79 issued tickets would net about $8,000 for the city budget.
Even after the tickets go to court, the fines still could end up in city coffers. The revenue is collected over time, and it is not clear how much is tied to Unofficial.
Two city taxes are also tied closely to Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, but like everything else, it is hard to track the Unofficial bump. On an average day in 2011, the city collected nearly $80,000 in sales tax revenue, a number city officials expect to be higher on Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.
The city charges a second tax at bars and restaurants. The food and beverage tax netted $3,048 in revenue on an average day in 2011. That number would rise if students bought a significantly larger amount of drinks and food on a single day.
What the city pays
With dozens of extra police officers patrolling the streets, enforcing the law on Unofficial is not cheap. Last year, city officials paid nearly $12,000 for police overtime and more than $13,000 the year before that.
As students crowd bars, apartments, houses and balconies, a team of three Champaign Fire Department officials keeps watch. The extra patrol costs about $1,900 per year.
And Stavins suggests the cost of enforcing the law might outweigh the revenue generated by fines. The cost of police, legal department staff and members of the court system who all contribute to enhancing public safety in general is expensive, he said.
How it is managed
Even though the financial aspects of Unofficial St. Patrick's Day bear resemblance to those of more docile community events, city officials say they treat it differently.
Gerard, who also acts as the city's liquor commissioner and has a role in regulating the flow of alcohol on campus, said there is no question the event is an economic bump "when you see green Illinois T-shirts over at Schnucks" — but it has to be controlled.
"Basically, it's just a beast we have to manage," Gerard said. "We have to keep people safe and minimize the impact to our community."
He said he also realizes there are risks and rewards.
"When you talk to Campustown merchants, the sandwich shops and T-shirt shops, they love it," Gerard said. "It's a pain, but that's a lot of numbers coming through and spending their money."
And he thinks impeding local business would be an example of government extending its hand too far.
"That's exactly why I'm not going to take the steps to completely shut down the bars," Gerard said.
Finance Director Richard Schnuer said he has heard the arguments that the city limits its discouragement of Unofficial because of the revenue, but he wants to set the record straight.
In 26 years as the city's finance director, he said, he has never heard a city employee or elected official suggest that the city adopt a policy or practice of enforcing certain laws — or failing to enforce certain laws — to increase revenue.
Make it boring?
Before there was an Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, city and UI officials had experience with another kind of booze-fueled annual event: Halloween.
Michael La Due was on the Champaign City Council when authorities squelched it.
"It was entirely a question of how the city chose to manage it in concert with the state police," La Due said.
Halloween had gotten rowdy in the late 1980s, when the city started taking steps to contain the party: Officials set up beer and food booths and a designated gathering area to control the crowds. La Due remembers city officials cordoned off a section of campus with hurricane fencing while state police marched in formation.
By 1990, there was no more beer, food and bands, and the city didn't allow the sale of alcohol in containers less than a quart. A couple years later, authorities were calling Halloween a "nonevent."
"It made it boring," La Due said. "You couldn't wander around without thinking you might be stopped, you might be detained, questioned, whatever. Freedom of access to the campus was limited."
But repeating that effort would be expensive for all the agencies involved, he said, and it could portray the city as a sponsor of the event.
"I don't think anyone is prepared or ready to do that," he said. "We'll see."
While officials manage Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, the T-shirt market is getting more competitive.
"You can buy a shirt anywhere now for Unofficial," Paragi said at T.I.S. Bookstore.
From a financial perspective, he said, the day is important to him. But if it were to disappear, the extra revenue he sees would eventually fade from memory.
"It'd be just a blip that we wouldn't miss," he said.
2011 ticket breakdown
Police issued 350 tickets for city of Champaign violations on Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day in 2011. It is likely that most of the tickets were paid, though it is unclear how much in fines the city actually recovered after they went through the city’s legal department and the court system over time. City Attorney Fred Stavins said that the cost of collection may actually exceed the revenue generated.
NumberOffenseFineTotal198Minor in possession$320$63,36079Public possession$175$13,82528Adult responsibility$320$8,9609Keg violation$320$2,8807Sale to minor$320$2,2407Balcony-thrown objects$225$1,5753Fighting$225$6753Pedestrian crossing$175$5253Open container$175$5252Unlawful ID$320$6401Possession of cannabis$320$3201Drug paraphernalia$320$3201Resisting an officer$225$2251Battery$225$2251Criminal damage$225$2251Litter$175$1751Public urination$175$1754Otherat least $175$700
Source: City of Champaign
This story appeared in print on March 4.