Hey, fans: The price of a beer's gone up

Arena rounds up cost, surpassing tax's 10% increase

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Call it tax plus.

Sports fans seeking to drown their sorrows or enhance their ecstasy now have to pay more for the privilege, courtesy of Allegheny County's new 10 percent tax on alcoholic beverages.

But they're actually paying a premium.

Penguins fans attending last night's game at Mellon Arena against the Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance, ponied up $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 14 percent hike from $5.25 before the tax that began Tuesday.

A 16-ounce beer can's new price was $7, 12 percent higher than the old $6.25. And a 21-ounce draft beer rose 11 percent to $7.50, up from $6.75.

Aramark, which handles concessions and other services, calculated the new prices by tacking on 10 percent of the original price and then rounding up to the nearest quarter.

"We round up here at the arenas and stadiums. We don't deal with pennies. We go in quarter increments," said James Carter, general manager for Aramark at the hockey arena.

The same methodology will hold true at Heinz Field and PNC Park, the two other venues in the county for which Aramark provides concessions.

Mike McDonald, Aramark's district manager in Pittsburgh, essentially said fans are paying more than 10 percent for their own convenience. Not having to dicker with small change speeds up drink lines and enables fans to return more quickly to their seats, he said.

"In our industry we round to the nearest quarter for the speed of service. We don't deal with nickels or pennies or dimes. With the short service window we have at these venues it would just lengthen the time to bring customers through and create more of a problem," Mr. McDonald said.

Asked if Aramark would consider rounding down, Mr. McDonald said, "Generally, no. We don't round up to the dollar either."

After the 10 percent tax is paid to Allegheny County, Aramark will pocket the difference, Mr. McDonald said.

While Pirates fans are months away from the home opener and new beer prices at PNC Park, Steelers fans will be greeted by more expensive libations Saturday, when Heinz Field hosts the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first playoff round.

However, Steelers fans will not be able to get a preview of the pricing structure in this newspaper. Team spokesman Dave Lockett refused to discuss beer prices at the stadium, which seats 65,050 people. "We're not going to give that out," Mr. Lockett said. "It's just a matter of policy."

A recent story on the ESPN Web site, written before the 10-percent tax began, said beer prices range from $4.50 for a 16-ounce domestic beer to $6.75 for a 21-ounce domestic. Vendors sell 16-ounce domestics for $6.25.

County Treasurer John Weinstein figures that implementing the tax Saturday at Heinz Field will bring in a pretty penny to the county, which is using the money and revenue generated by a new $2-a-day car rental tax to subsidize the ailing Port Authority.

"I would estimate conservatively the county would probably get $50,000 from the playoff game," Mr. Weinstein said, noting that even more tax revenue would pour in from the bars and restaurants catering to Steelers crowds, including those around the stadium.

Mr. Weinstein said he spoke yesterday to Jimmie Sacco, executive director of stadium management, who outlined how the new tax would be put into effect at Heinz Field.

"He verified for me the fact that the Steelers will include the tax into the price of the alcoholic beverage for anything sold within the stadium, whether it's beer, mixed drinks at the club level, the suites -- all of that will be included in the total, final cost," Mr. Weinstein said.

No one from the treasurer's office will be dispatched to sporting events to ensure that the tax is being collected properly. Mr. Weinstein said the proof will come Feb. 25, when the taxes from January are due.

Mr. Carter said it took some doing to prepare Mellon Arena for business last night -- menus had to be reprinted, posted prices had to be changed, cash registers had to be reprogrammed -- but anticipated that everything would be ready to go by game time.

It was unclear what effect the price change would have on drink sales and tips given to the hawkers who sell beer in the stands. Mr. McDonald declined to speculate.

Penguins fans have endured previous price increases without much clamor, Mr. Carter said, though those were confined to a mere quarter. After the last price hike in 2006, the arena did not see any drop in alcohol sales, according to Mr. Carter.

"We're not happy about it, but we obviously want to abide by the law," he said.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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