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Etc.: On Second Street
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The City of Platteville has decided to take on an 800-pound gorilla, so to speak — Second Street and the problems its overserved create.

Police Chief Doug McKinley made that point in a question asked by an alderman Feb. 26 — that alcohol-related problems aren’t exclusively caused by underage drinkers, but are the result of those who can’t handle their alcohol, whether they’re legally able to drink or not.

Much of the police departments’ business is tied to the negative effects of excessive (which I define as when inebriation overrules common sense and self-control) alcohol consumption. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it is getting attention now perhaps because of the claimed $100,000 in annual city spending on police costs tied to what happens on Second Street and its aftermath.

As always, legislation at any level of government should be based on what will work, not on feel-good ideas that won’t work, or will result in excessive cost. The 17 ideas developed by City Manager Larry Bierke and Second Street bar-owners (which you can read at range from this-should-be-done-now to good-idea-but-won’t-happen.

An example of the latter is a proposal to begin a municipal court. There would be benefits to a municipal court — specifically, the ability to enforce what the city might consider more appropriate penalties than the lighter-than-some-would-like sentences coming out of the courthouse in Lancaster. (Platteville is, to no one’s surprise, the capital of alcohol-related offenses of Grant County.) Whether that’s worth the cost of establishing a municipal court is another subject.

An example of the former seems to me to be blocking off Second Street at least between Main Street and Mineral Street between, say, 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The combination of less-than-sober pedestrians and vehicles that may be driven by people with a blood alcohol concentration greater than 0.0 seems like a calamity waiting to happen. Police have blocked off part of Second Street on big weekends such as UW–Platteville Homecoming; perhaps that should be policy on all the other weekends of the year.

Another seemingly good idea is to create an ordinance that prohibits the behaviors excess alcohol consumption spurs, a public intoxication ordinance. The list of behaviors (and such an ordinance needs to be based on police-observed behaviors, not merely a number on a machine) could include some now covered under disorderly conduct ordinances, such as public urination or being an alcohol-fueled jerk in public, as well as, say, passing out where you don’t belong.

One fact that tends to be forgotten is that most of what the council decides to enact for Second Street will be enforced upon bars not on Second Street, restaurants that serve alcohol, and stores that sell alcohol. On the other hand, if Ald. Steve Becker’s question about whether certain bars are a bigger problem than others can be answered in the affirmative, perhaps a more focused enforcement mechanism that ties liquor licenses to problems at the establishments needs to be created.

That in turn brings us to another familiar subject over the past year or so. Two bar owners came to the Common Council meeting to show their willingness to work with the city on alcohol issues. The reaction they got from Common Council President Mike Dalecki was: “You guys have got to sign up for this all the way. Otherwise we’re going to do things you’re not going to like.” And you wonder why comments are made about aldermanic decorum at meetings.

Second Street bars are businesses that sell legal products, pay taxes, buy local products and services, employ people who also buy local products and services, and make significant charitable donations. Second Street bars are not the only places people who drink more than they should are getting their alcohol. (More on that in a paragraph.)

Two other issues are guaranteed to pose problems with the city’s efforts. The first is that higher levels of government have given themselves authority over at least one thing that should be a local decision — bar time. A police officer once told me that eliminating bar time would eliminate bar-time issues because bar patrons wouldn’t be drinking as much as possible in the hour before bar time. His example was New Year’s Eve, when bars can be open all night, and people leave when they’re ready to leave. (Shouldn’t a business be able to decide for itself when it opens and closes?) The other is the drinking age, which in its nearly 30 years set at age 21 (the result of federal blackmail in threatening to withhold transportation aid from states that didn’t set their drinking age at 21) seems to me to have promoted, not prevented, underage drinking, and specifically promoted binge drinking. (The 21-year-old drinking age hasn’t gotten rid of house parties either, as a story elsewhere in this week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper demonstrates.)

The other issue is that alcohol consumption to the point where drinkers do stupid things is really a national cultural problem — arguably worse in Wisconsin, but perhaps not, and certainly not exclusive to Platteville. I graduated from UW–Madison, about whose alcohol culture no more need be said. Up Wisconsin 35, UW–La Crosse experienced a string of deaths of male students who drowned in the Mississippi River over more than a decade. Rumors of a serial killer were quashed by the FBI, who pointed to the common culprit — excessive alcohol consumption. A 23-year-old UW–La Crosse student was found dead Feb. 17; cause of death was hypothermia secondary to intoxication. That hasn’t happened at UW–Platteville, although the word “yet” probably should be added to that phrase.