PAWTUCKET – A newly approved change to the city’s 1996 ordinance establishing the Alcohol Prevention Awareness Fund allows officials to use some of the money in the fund to respond to nuisance complaints about local nightclubs.
The issue with the current process is that there is often a gap in time before a formal hearing is held, said City Council members at a Sept. 28 special meeting. Using this little-touched fund in an emergency basis for items other than liquor awareness activities will allow the council and its Board of License Commissioners to pay for a police detail or cover some other cost to immediately address an issue, said Councilor Terry Mercer.
Mercer spent some time at the Sept. 28 meeting addressing criticism from resident Lynn Farinelli over what she said would be raiding the fund. He said he thought there was some confusion about what the amendment did, noting the fact that money from the fund was transferred more than a decade ago with other accounts totaling $1.4 million to address the city’s budget crisis at the time.
In granting second passage to the change, it would simply be saying that the council wants to expand acceptable uses for the fund, said Mercer, to safeguard neighborhoods when the council can’t immediately force a change.
Money in the fund is derived from all fines levied against liquor establishments in the city. It “can and should be used” for its original purpose, said Mercer, and will not be used “willy-nilly,” but only in rare instances.
The fund was originally used for trainings related to do trainings with liquor establishments and high school students, but was used for little else.
When the city’s fiscal database came online in 1998, the fund was showing $6,200, said Mercer. Since then, “fines for bad acts” or “problems created by bad acts” have gone into the fund.
Mercer said the $30,000 previously taken out of the fund was all above-board and out in the open, with nothing nefarious involved. Just as the money was taken previously to protect the city from a fiscal standpoint, it would be used now to protect taxpayers financially, so they wouldn’t have to cover the police details and other costs themselves, and from a public safety standpoint, he said.
With all the issues going on now, the fund should balloon to $20,000 in the next month or two, said Mercer, a number that would be $50,000 if the $30,000 hadn’t previously been transferred. There is no “upending the intent” of taking fine money to protect the city, he said.
Other councilors said they agreed, with Councilor Clovis Gregor saying he thought the use was a “natural extension” of the current uses for the fund. He said it should be used sparingly and not diluted for other purposes.
Council President David Moran and Councilors Mark Wildenhain and Mike Araujo both also commended Mercer for the move.
Councilor Melissa DaRosa said she doesn’t believe the use of the fund for alcohol awareness and prevention should change, as there are still a lot of issues in the city related to alcohol use, saying she hopes no money is taken from what it was intended for.
Wildenhain thanked Mercer for his creativity in adding security when needed in neighborhoods, saying taxpayers deserve to have the money for those police details come from the offenders’ pocket. This is a tool the council can use for protection and accountability, he said, as well as a deterrent to further negative actions.
Araujo noted that the city has only called in a police detail on its own twice since he’s been on the council, but on the occasion where an offending establishment can’t come for a formal hearing for a week or two, it’s important to have this option for city leaders to respond. Araujo thanked Gregor and Mercer for their work on it.
DaRosa asked about the possibility of having the liquor establishments pay the city back when a hearing is held, but Mercer said that no such “quid pro quo” situation can be utilized. Araujo said he continues to believe in “step discipline,” and he wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing a first-time offender establishment “to a top step.”