LCE ramps up enforcement
The state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (LCE) district office in Montoursville more than doubled the number of citations it filed in 2013 across its 11-county territory, from 64 to 130.
It's part of a statewide effort to conduct more routine inspections at bars and clubs, said Sgt. Jeffrey L. McGinness, district office commander.
"Our goal is to make sure establishments run smoothly and effectively and don't pose a burden to the community," he said.
He said his staff has increased from a few officers and one supervisor to eight officers and two supervisors.
"More people are going through the state police academy to become LCE agents and that has allowed us to increase our manpower statewide," he said. "More officers, more complaints and more activity lead to more enforcement."
The stepped-up enforcement, however, has been met with concern by local bar and club operators, several of whom referred to the LCE's actions as "nit-picking."
Jim Bush Sr., president of Atlas Fire Company, offered the example of fire companies being cited for serving non-members at "beef and brew" fundraisers. He said organizations must purchase a special occasion permit for $30 to serve non-members at such functions.
"We are all concerned about the number of citations being filed in our area, particularly against volunteer fire companies that raise money to purchase new equipment and maintain their stations so they can continue to serve the community," he said.
Bush helped organize three meetings with other volunteer fire company officials and club representatives to discuss their concerns. Meetings on Feb. 17 and March 10 were held at Atlas Fire Company while the third was March 25 at Brady Fire Company, Ranshaw, with state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) and his office manager, Harold Hurst, in attendance.
Bush said bar owners and club and fire company officials believe LCE officers have different interpretations of the laws they are enforcing, and that enforcement has been inconsistent.
But McGinness said it's a case of additional manpower for LCE, vigilant enforcement and the failure of clubs to adhere to their own bylaws that has caused the spike.
He noted that the number of complaints increased by 200 in 2013.
"We are a complaint-driven law enforcement agency," he said.
McGinness said more citizens are reporting complaints to the LCE, such as loud speaker violations and unruly activity that disturb their quality of life.
"People don't appreciate bar patrons yelling or breaking beer bottles in the street or minors being served by clubs," McGinness said. "We try to give them some resolve by investigating their complaints."
He said more people come forward with complaints after they read in the newspaper about a certain establishment being cited.
The district, which includes Northumberland County, received 788 complaints in 2013 compared to 589 the year before.
In addition to the large jump in citations from 2012 to 2013, LCE officers issued 153 warning letters last year compared to 108 in 2012.
LCE distributes media releases when a club or bar is cited. News-Item records show no such reports in 2010 involving Northumberland County bars or clubs, one in 2011, five in 2012 (all after September), then 20 in 2013.
Small games confusion
Bush said he recognizes that if an establishment violates the law, it is subject to fines.
"We understand that, but we are just looking for help, guidance and a little leniency," he said. "Everybody wants to comply with the laws, but the LCE is making it more difficult because they haven't clarified the laws and are very inconsistent with reporting requirements for small games of chance."
John Parry, administrator of small games of chance at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie 464, Mount Carmel, agrees with Bush.
"It's a combination of the nit-picking offenses, inconsistencies with interpreting the laws and lack of information provided by the LCE to fire companies, clubs and taverns," Parry said.
Parry said the reporting procedures involving small games of chance are a "joke" and have "no sense of reality."
"It's difficult to report money from fund-raising activities because the LCE has seven different schedules for one game of chance," he said.
He said reporting procedures are being operated under an obsolete law.
Bush and Parry are attempting to set up a meeting in the near future with McGinness and officials with the small games of chance and state Department of Revenue in an attempt to clarify certain gambling and liquor laws.
Some bar owners who have been cited by the LCE believe they are being "picked on" or "targeted" by increased enforcement efforts.
A Shamokin bar owner, who preferred not to be identified, stated, "It seems to me they are justifying their existence by handing out frivolous fines, which have gone up exorbitantly over the years."
He believes the LCE uses unconstitutional techniques to entrap bar and club owners.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "We are a small town that sells beers for a buck and a quarter, but we pay the same licensing fees as big city bars that make a lot more revenue than us. I know they (LCE) have a job to do, but Pennsylvania has some of the weirdest liquor laws in the whole country. The laws need to be re-evaluated."
The bar owner, who said he's just trying to make a living, pointed out that there's been a significant reduction in the amount of bars in the community over the past 10 years.
"They (LCE) have pretty much wiped out the bar business in this town," he said. "We barely make enough money to keep the doors open and they just keep harassing us."
Len Chiu, owner of the 5 C's, 15 E. Fifth St., Mount Carmel, however, doesn't see anything wrong with the LCE cracking down on violators.
"They have rules and laws and if you follow them, you won't get in trouble," he said.
McGinness said the significant manpower increase in the past few years allows more time to conduct additional inspections that often uncover violations. They range from after-hour sales to selling alcohol to minors or non-members, noise complaints, bookkeeping errors, failure to comply with bylaws and small games of chance violations.
The sergeant said the LCE attempts to educate bar and club operators on liquor law changes and small games of chance legislation that affect their businesses. If they fail to comply, that's when enforcement becomes necessary.
McGinness said officers inspect bars and clubs within the district at least once every three to five years.
He said charges filed against clubs or bars are brought before an administrative law judge who has the authority to impose penalties ranging from $50 to $1,000 for minor offenses and up to $5,000 for more serious offenses. In addition, the judge can impose a license suspension or revocation of the license based on the severity of the charge.
The judge also can mandate training for the licensee in an effort to educate them on the requirements of being a licensee.
In addition to Northumberland County, the Montoursville district office covers Clinton, Potter, Tioga, Bradford, Sullivan, Lycoming, Columbia, Montour, Union and Snyder counties.