'Unofficial' taxes city law enforcement, but revenue is a byproduct

'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.

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CharacterCounts wrote on March 05, 2012 at 9:03 am

What is the total costs of all government agencies that assisted with the unofficial St. Patrick's Day event?  If this event was shut down, many of the law enforcement representatives would have been performing other duties to reduce crime and assist with traffic safety.  The costs of all law enforcement officers salaries and benefits should be compiled to reflect the actual cost to the tax payers versus just the overtime cost of Champaign police officers.  What is the costs of the support staff to record the arrests, cost of the prosecutors and their staff and the cost of the judiciary due to this event.  What are the costs of university officials and staff salaries and benefits that spent time on this event?

I suspect but do not have the facts, it costs more for all government agencies to respond to this event than what was brought in from extra sales tax and fines from arrests during the event.

The next death that occurs as a result of this event, perhaps the mayor of Champaign should be the one who delivers the death notice to the next of kin.  I again suspect, but don't know for sure, he would then have a different perspective on whether it is worth keeping or shutting down this event in future years.

It appears that local, county and state law enforcement command officers and street officers did an outstanding job in responding to this event.  They should be commended for their planning and actions taken during the event.  However, they do not contol whether elected officials respond with action to eliminate this event and keep the community safe from an alcohol related death or serious injury to event participants.

ClearVision wrote on March 08, 2012 at 2:03 pm

It's not an official event. Champaign (nor Urbana, nor the University; I know the article, as well as other commentors, cites Champaign only but it's not strictly a Champaign issue) can't stop Unofficial any more than they can stop hundreds of unconnected parties that happen any other weekend while school is in session. What would you have them do?

45solte wrote on March 05, 2012 at 9:03 am

It would be impeding local businesses if a largely under-age drunk fest were reigned in?  Well, then, maybe Gerard and all the smart kids at the 'world-renowned' UI can come up with a more noble event to bring in revenue to local businesses.  Then again, I guess promoting said drunk-fest for local revenue fits in nicely with the ethical vision of the higher-ups at UI.  Strategic marketing package at the ready.  People ought to be champing at the bit to come here.

Sid Saltfork wrote on March 05, 2012 at 10:03 am

Perhaps, the situation would change if mayors were not liquor commissioners.  An independent liquor commissioner would not have the political interests to deal with when establishing rules, and enforcing them.  The concept of "twin cities" requires redundancy in police, fire, etc..., departments.  It includes liquor commissioners.  There would be a significant savings by creating one city whether it be named Busey-Carle, or Chambana.  However, I doubt that will ever happen.

EL YATIRI wrote on March 06, 2012 at 12:03 am
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Yes, one city government, police etc would make the most sense.

Not only is the mayor also the liquor comissioner, he also was the recipient of a very large campaign contribution from campus bar owners.  He then went on to manage unofficial more in line with what campus bar owners wanted compared to his predecessor.

Make the chief of police the liquor comissioner.  The police have to deal with the rowdy drunks, and they have no interest in being friendly with campus bar owners.

sameeker wrote on March 05, 2012 at 11:03 am

Maybe the students and their families should just refuse to spend any money here for a month. Our taxes pay for the police, and then they whine when there is an event that causes them to have to work. Do they charge churches and do gooders whenever they is a big religious event at the assembley hall? I suppose that if the students all went to church and put all of their money in the plate, that would suit all of the uptite people in the great police state of carlesville. Of course, there would not be any tax money coming in to pay for city services then.

45solte wrote on March 05, 2012 at 11:03 am


The stereotype of the Irish as alcoholics gets a pass among the gloablly oriented and cultural diversity sensitive students of the UI campus as well as from the mayor of Champaign?  What other stereotypes can we walk back out to make a buck off of.  

Sid Saltfork wrote on March 05, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Rednecks, Chicago Italians, Suburbanites, oh... how about a self parody?  Students being "students".  We know what is off limits regarding groups.  Why not just have students being students with every Friday as their UnOfficial holiday?  If the costs for the UnOfficial is becoming too high; the university could add an "UnOfficial fee" to the tuition, and fees.  It would be shared with both cities.  It would be a "win-win" for everyone including the university, the cities, and the merchants.  Oh, the students would complain; but mommy, and daddy would pay for it.

jmb wrote on March 05, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Gotta love our government officials. Stavin actually thinks it costs more to collect these fines than they take in. Really! My rough total is about $100 thousand in fines. Is the city and county hiring extra clerks and judges to process these fines? If not, look at the bright side, we will know they are at least earning the tax dollars we spend to pay them.

Then we have the poster that implies this event costs more than it takes in. Apparently this poster does not have much business sense. I read several estimates that approximately 20,000 students, both local and out of town, participate in this event. Lets be real conservative and say that each one spends $25.00 our businesses would not otherwise recveive. That is a smooth $500,000.00 in found revenue. And the taxes on that are about $45,000.00, which is far more than the $15,000.00 in overtime pay the city forks out for increased police presence.

Lets get real here folks. The only excuse the naysayers have is that someone might get drunk and die. Hows this different than the typical Friday night in campustown where there is always the possibility and far too frequently the reality that a student dies by drinking too much or getting run over by a car. No doubt a tragedy, but the only real way to minimize or eliminate that would be to reinstitute prohibition.

Lets look at the Uof I major sports teams. The football team and basketball teams are atrocious. Why is that? Perhaps its because few pro prospects want to go to a school in a city that has a reputation for overpolicing the student population. From scores of foot patrol policing campustown like it is a war zone and pepper spraying kids for having too much fun, to underage bar checks that serve no real purpose but to tick off the students, why would you expect them to want to go to school and play college sports in C/U.

C/U does not have anything other than the promise of a world class education to lure any student here, no matter how much you want to delude yourself to believe it does. Hows about we find a way to welcome the students to C/U, let em have a bit of fun every now and again, and stay the heck away from campus on the few occasions where one of these events is being held.  Duh!

Sid Saltfork wrote on March 05, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Maybe, your right.  Next year the cities should announce that there will be no police in campus town.  There would be no complaints regarding the cost for the police.  There would be no complaints regarding the fines.  There would be no intrusion by government.  The police, and emergency responders could have time to handle the needs of the community without being drawn off to handle campus town.  They should try it next year.  If it works, it could be a model for the other 364 days of the year.

acs wrote on March 05, 2012 at 2:03 pm

A $320 fine for a 20-year-old being within arm's reach of a beer, but only a $225 fine for battery or resisting an officer... How can anyone think this is justice?

Jsmith68 wrote on March 05, 2012 at 8:03 pm

This is what happens when the mayor tries to act like a frat boy.  Heard he was out riding with the police saying how great it was. Wow.  

Fromthearea wrote on March 06, 2012 at 8:03 am

So hold on here, the city knows first hand how to control this kind of trash and it chooses not to???  Somebody died last year because of this.  No matter how much his family wanted to keep it out of the paper, or how quickly the situation got swept under the rug, Brad was killed.  This year in the paper it even said he was drunk when he was killed, something that was never mentioned last year when it happened.  I imagine his parents threatened a lawsuit.  

All in the name of money.  I can't believe the university still has the pull to attract students outside of engineering with all the scandal and just plain stupidity that happens at it.  I can't imagine what will happen to this town if the university starts to fail on us.