Under-19 fine increase draws some fire

BY AMANDA McCLURE | MARCH 13, 2009 7:30 AM

UI freshman Mary Wine wishes local officials would focus their attention on other issues downtown.

A newly approved measure that increased the fine for under-19 patrons in bars after 10 p.m. doesn’t address the important issues, she said.

“It seems like the police have bigger issues to deal with than whether or not an underage person is in a bar,” Wine, 18, said. “Public intox and sexual assaults are much more dangerous, and the consequences to the public are more severe.”

The new ordinance will fine under-19 bar patrons in the establishments after 10 p.m. $500 — double the charge before. This is regardless of whether the patron is drinking alcohol.

“Our decision to increase the fine is in the hopes that higher prices will increase deterrence,” Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey said.

But Wine said the fine seems steep for a college town where bar employees “willingly” allow underage people into some bars.

The council’s newest action furthers the officials’ long-standing efforts to curb underage drinking. In the past, councilors have considered a proposal to administer breath tests to the staff of establishments serving alcohol and a zoning ordinance that would outlaw a new bar from being established within 500 feet of an existing bar. The latter would effectively close downtown off to any new drinking establishments.

Councilor Mike O’Donnell is skeptical about the success of the most recent ordinance.

“I don’t know if it’s going to work or not; I don’t think anybody does,” he said. “It seems like all we ever talk about is alcohol.”

O’Donnell said he’d like to see bar alternatives in the downtown district and returning the pool tables and bowling alley the IMU used to offer.

“We don’t even have a movie theater downtown,” he said. “Where are the underage kids supposed to go?”

Councilors are open to community discussion about bringing nonalcohol activities to the downtown area, Bailey said, but part of the challenge is finding what works for the town.

And despite a drop in issued under-19 tickets — police doled out 134 citations in 2003 and 70 in 2008, nearly 50 percent fewer — Bailey said the council hasn’t seen a steep enough reduction.

“We haven’t seen a real decrease in underage drinking, and this is one way we’re hoping to reverse that,” she said.

But Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said the problem isn’t that persons under 19 are in the bars, it’s what happens after they leave that becomes an issue.

“It’s not necessarily that you’re in a bar late at night,” he said. “The alarming issues come from the behaviors and choices that go along with irresponsible drinking.”

The increased ticket price doesn’t necessarily mean officers will be issuing them more freely, Kelsay said.

“The goal isn’t to write more tickets, it’s to address and modify drinking problems,” he said.
He hopes the fine will deter the underage drinking problem in Iowa City, he said, but noted the punishment doesn’t always work.

“Some people will sit back and say it’s not worth the risk, but there are always others that won’t be fazed by an increased fine.”

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