Nome Council: Public inebriation law down for the count
One attempt to bring a charge against public drunks for what they do while “under the weather” is dead and gone, failed on a vote of 3 to 1 at Monday evening’s Nome Common Council meeting, one vote short of four required for passage.
Problematic alcohol use is protected by the Alaska State Constitution, as alcoholism is not a crime, but a disease, according to the state Constitution. The document prohibits arrest for just plain drunkenness, advocates treatment, without mentioning funding. However, risk to self and others has been shaped by regulations. One idea to decrease the number of public inebriates on Front Street, and to protect them from harm, became a proposal for an ordinance against being drunk on a public right-of-way—highway, street, road, alley, or anywhere there is an easement for public travel and transport by motor vehicle. A vote to formally introduce the measure for hearing and passage had been delayed after discussion at several previous Council meetings pending more information. Translation: There were not four “Yes” votes around the table for passage; however, there was pressure from a sector of the public and well as the growing problem to progress toward a solution.
Human services people spoke against the ordinance during public comment periods on agendas, saying the measure would not reduce overconsumption, which underlay the issues targeted in ordinance language: They believe there are better wrenches in the tool bucket.
“We believe this ordinance, presented in an attempt to deter individuals from wandering on Front Street, will not contribute in any way toward improved quality of life,” said a statement from Rhonda M. Schneider, Nome Community Center director, on behalf of its Board. “Rather, it will place a further burden, with a citation and fine that many will not be able to pay.”
Schneider provided the Council a handout comprising the position statement from the NCC Board of Directors wrapped with some statistical studies of the effects of a tax on alcohol. The study excerpts provided showed a decrease in alcohol-related disease mortality in Alaska, and higher alcohol prices and alcohol taxes associated with reductions in excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.
Schneider brought up the recurrent discussion at Council on implementing an excise tax on alcohol as a partial solution.
“The excise tax that has been proposed we do support, as an effort that will result in the reduction of alcohol consumption, especially among youth [who are more responsive to price increases],” Schneider said. “We support a legal effort to encourage the reduction of alcohol consumption and the harm it causes so as to be helpful and not punitive,” Schneider told the Council from the podium. She named a number of communities that have an excise tax on alcohol—Bethel, Unalakleet, Fairbanks, Barrow and Kotzebue, taxes ranging from around three percent to 10 percent.
Schneider declared the Nome Community Center ready to partner with the Council in discussion of a solution.
Supposing an excise tax were applied to alcohol, “What’s to keep someone from going up Beam Road or just past Nome-Beltz school complex to sell liquor?” Councilman Louis Green Sr. asked. “What’s the gain?”
Panganga Pungowiyi of Kawerak Wellness Program and also a member of the NCC Board, rose to comment that studies show that a concentration of outlets in a small area, as on Front Street in Nome, also contributed to higher consumption.
Until there was more enthusiasm around the Council table, the issue was not going to go any farther, Councilman Stan Andersen said.
“Right now there aren’t four votes for it [excise tax].” He encouraged Pungowiyi to file to run for a Council seat, that the deadline was the next day on Sept. 12. Pungowiyi already serves on the Nome Board of Education.
“The discussion needs to happen,” Mayor Richard Beneville said.
Several human services organizations such as NCC, the Nome Emergency Shelter Team (NEST), Kawerak Wellness Program and Norton Sound Health Corporation have declared support for making the old museum building on Front Street an Alano Club or a day shelter. The Council has discussed the plan, but there has not been substantial forward movement.
The idea of an excise tax on alcohol has received a lukewarm reception in Council Chambers so far. The idea of penalizing responsible drinkers with higher prices because of misuse by others has been an impediment.
Data from Nome Police Dept. shows alcohol related calls comprising from 35 percent to 63 percent of total police calls based on monthly reports in one year. A substantial percentage of ambulance runs relate to alcohol, according to a report from Nome Volunteer Ambulance Dept.
Statewide, alcohol costs put Alaska second highest behind District of Columbia. The per capita cost of alcohol in the Last Frontier was $1,096 according to a study in 2006.
More resting places
In other business, the Council unanimously approved purchase of land from Kenai Masonic Lodge to be used to provide more room at the Nome Cemetery. The deal fixes the price at $20,000 for the approximately two acres. The land was held in trust by the Kenai group when the Nome Masonic Lodge disbanded years ago, according to Green.
“This will give us a few more years before we have to pay millions for a new cemetery,” Andersen said.
“I’m for it. It seems like the right thing to do,” Councilman Tom Sparks agreed.
Snooze, you lose
The Council mourned the sale of a World War II hangar and its site to Arctic Gold Mining. The museum organization offered the land to the City for free about five months ago. The Council did not bite.
“Here’s one of the biggest things from World War II and nobody gives a crap,” Andersen said. He found it amazing that there was so much effort to save the White Alice site on Anvil Mountain, that the Nome Planning Commission was talking about a Nome Historical Commission, and the hangar was ignored.
He believed where the hangar sits and Satellite Field were already mined, Green said.
Tom Moran, city manager, thought the mining company would use the building for storage. He stated an intention to contact local Arctic Gold Mining people to find out the deal and whether the hangar could be preserved.
Speed sign lies
Greg Kruschek Avenue belongs to State of Alaska. Nome maintains the road. The speed limit for a road of that type is 40 miles per hour, according to state Dept. of Transportation. Some time ago, the City decided to set up roadside signs declaring the speed limit 10 miles lower, at 30 miles per hour, to be safer.
At the time, Chief John Papasodora warned the City staff and the Council that 30 miles per hour could not be enforced. Apparently no one told newly hired Officer Wade Harrison. He wrote tickets for motorists disobeying the 30-mile speed posting.
The court threw out the cases.
In packets for the Sept. 11 meeting, Council members found a letter written by Harrison and sent to the City as a private citizen. He urged the City to change the speed limit to the 30 miles an hour posted.
“The underlying factor about this issue is that the posted limits have no legal enforcement or cause to be there and frankly not based on the truth,” Harrison wrote. “I believe this should be fixed by petitioning the Dept. of Transportation again, in agreeing to set the speed limit as they are posted or some other alternative solution the City Council and attorney can address to resolve this issue.”
Andersen couldn’t resist.
“If that’s the one [officer] who has the hot ticket book, maybe he ought to look at his whole card and stop writing so many,” Andersen said. “The way he’s writing tickets, people should have the idea by now.”
The City posted the limit at 10 miles per hour under the DOT standard because of pedestrians and the school nearby, Moran said. “The City did not have the authority.”
He would be willing to poke the sleeping bear, Moran said, and ask the state DOT to revise the standard for that category [of road]. “I’d be willing to do it,” he said.
Andersen liked Harrison writing the letter, he said.
But about the speed limit, “I’d like to hear what the chief has to say.”