Bellevue burps over beer in Bayne

Barely a month after voters rejected allowing liquor licenses in Bellevue, the borough is dealing with a proposal to sell beer in Bayne Park -- a proposal from the borough's own employees.

The idea for a "beer corral" in the park developed from plans to hold an arts festival to raise money for the borough's matching share of a grant to build a skate plaza in Bayne Park.

Director of administrative services Doug Sample told council members at their regular meeting on Tuesday that Bellevue would have to spend $25,000 this year and $50,000 next year in order to get the grant to build the skate plaza in phases over the next three years.

Some of the matching funds can be obtained by having borough employees credited for work they do on the project, such as the borough crew doing site preparation work. The rest will have to come in the form of cash -- either from tax dollars or private donations.

A proposal presented by assistant DAS Katie Hale originally had people paying a fee to visit business along Lincoln Avenue, where they would drink wine while viewing art. That idea died quickly after officials determined that it would be illegal to charge people for alcohol without a liquor license.

The next idea turned wine into beer, exchanged Lincoln Avenue for Bayne Park, and relied on a provision of the state liquor code that allows certain organizations to to obtain a special occasion permit (SOP) to sell alcohol. Municipalities, however, are not one of those eligible organizations.

Enter the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Company.

Hale said that the firefighters, who are incorporated as an organization separate from the borough, could apply for the SOP, sell the beer in a specific, controlled area of Bayne Park during the arts festival, collect the proceeds, and then make a donation to the borough. Questioned by Mayor George Doscher, Hale admitted that the firefighters also would profit from the sale of beer, and that it had not yet been determined how the revenue would be divided.

It is an arrangement that is perfectly legal, said Hale and solicitor Tom McDermott.

It is an arrangement that involves "sleight of hand" and "trickery," said the mayor.

Doscher said that his research with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board indicated that the SOP proceeds clearly are meant to go to the benefit of the organization that obtains the permit, and that the borough was doing nothing more than setting up a "straw man" to sell alcohol.

"They throw people in jail for doing this with guns," Doscher said, adding that the volunteer fire company "didn't come up with this idea, the borough did."

"It looks bad," the mayor said.

Council member Jim, Viscusi questioned whether it was a good idea to add alcohol to an event that will raise money for a skate plaza used primarily by youth.

"It's not promoting kids being on skateboards drunk," Hale maintained.

She and Sample said that the festival would be hard put to raise much money without selling alcohol.

"Selling beer will get you a lot of money," Hale said, adding that Allegheny General had offered to match donations up to $5,000.

"So the money justifies the means, is that what you're saying?" asked the mayor.

"Yes," Sample replied.

Council member Jane Braunlich said that the idea that the only way to raise funds in a dry town was by selling alcohol was "bizarre."

Residents agreed that the borough needed to acknowledge the results of the primary election, in which Bellevue voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed businesses to obtain licenses to sell alcoholic beverages.

"The people spoke, and they said no alcohol in Bellevue," said Ed Taylor of North Balph Avenue. "You've got to respect what the people voted for.

North Balph resident Gail Downey agreed. "The voters spoke. What more do you need?"

What is needed in this case, the mayor said, is an organization separate from the borough to take on the responsibility for raising funds for the skate plaza.

"It shouldn't be government doing this," Doscher said, noting that Bellevue taxpayers would rightfully ask whether the borough should be budgeting its money more carefully rather than using employees to plan fund-raisers for government projects.

He and council member David Gillingham Jr. also objected to the fact that the request for permission to sell alcohol, indeed the entire arts festival concept, had never been examined in detail and approved by council's parks and recreation committee before coming to council as a whole.

"You're crossing a whole lot of slippery slopes on real thin ice," Doscher said.

Because Bellevue is a dry town, the borough must approve a resolution allowing alcohol sales before anyone can get an SOP, according to the solicitor. Although Braunlich suggested simply rejecting the idea at Tuesday's meeting, the other council members present agreed to have the matter submitted to the parks committee.

Council members Lisa Blaney-Stewart, Mark Helbling and Mark Panichella were absent. Kathy Coder participated in portions of the meeting via telephone.

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