Tallying The Cost Of Alcohol Abuse

Community leaders talk of effects on children, family, community


Alcoholism is a problem in Payson.
Payson Justice of the Peace Ronnie McDaniel said that with 40 AA meetings a week in the area, there is not only a problem, but there is also support out there.

"It's really hard for me to sit on the bench and see all these families torn apart," he said. "Most of the incidents I see where people end up in jail, 90 percent of those have an alcohol problem.

McDaniel was speaking to an audience of concerned citizens who spent Saturday at a day-long seminar about the impact of alcoholism on the Rim country.

McDaniel sees 30 people a day in his court. As few as five of the cases are not alcohol-related, he said.

Forty percent of patients at Payson Regional Medical Center have alcohol-related diseases and injuries, according to Karen Amen, chief nursing officer at PRMC.

But not all the injured are treated at the hospital.

In 1997, the Payson Fire Department responded to 194 alcohol-related injuries. The calls included assaults, attempted suicides and suicides, medical problems and injuries.

With equipment and personnel, the cost to the town was $46,104.

These are just some of the statistics and some of the reasons why the Rim Country Intergroup Public Information Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous organized Saturday's seminar, which was held at the Tonto Apache Reservation gymnasium.

Brian B., a member of AA, told the group that as a member of Cooperation for the Professional Community, he and others help the community get a better understanding of what AA is about.

Community leaders, law enforcement and judicial officials, health care providers and social workers talked about the cost of alcoholism in the community.

It wasn't all dollars and cents, but there is a significant impact on the town financially.

In an April 1998 memorandum to Town Manager Rich Underkofler, Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner outlined eight categories of crime related to alcohol abuse: assaults, drug-related activity, minor consumption of alcohol, disorderly conduct, domestic violence, DUI, criminal damage and accidents.

The cost to the police department and the town was $155,636.

Payson Police Sgt. Todd Bramlet said the police department is taking a lot of heat because of the number of cars officers stop and the DUIs they arrest, but the arresting officers have their own very personal reasons for wanting to get impaired drivers off the roads.

Bramlet said Payson police will continue to stop cars and arrest people for DUIs. "It's because we've seen a lot of wrecks and a lot of dead kids," he said.

Another Payson Police officer said he turned his life around after being arrested for a DUI. "I'm an alcoholic and I've been sober nine years now. I got help from Rim Guidance and AA. I've been there."

The officer said the night he got the DUI, it was Bramlet who talked to him, and Bramlet who helped him turn his life around.

Town Manager Rich Underkofler said the town has gotten a lot of political pressure to back off on DUI enforcement. He said bar and restaurant owners are saying that stopping cars for any reason at all is hurting business.

"Our police department is being very aggressive between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.," he said. "We can find a lot of probable cause. If you're out driving and drinking in these times, you're going to get busted.

"We say, 'tough.'"
Underkofler talked about his own experience and the consequences of getting a DUI when he was a town manager in Alaska.

"I'd only been there six months. I went to jail. It made statewide news. It cost $1,500 for an attorney. I lost political credibility.

"There are consequences that can affect your job, your insurance rates, your finances."

Based on the figures provided by the police department, fire department, magistrate court and prosecutor's office, the total estimated annual cost for alcohol-related incidents in Payson is $366,290.

Mayor Vern Stiffler, one of the guest speakers Saturday, told the audience of some 50 people that there are now 39 liquor licenses held by businesses within the town limits.

"We have to realize that alcohol is readily available," Stiffler said. "A large portion of the police department budget involves alcohol-related crimes. We would have money for other things; it's a drain on our resources."

Stiffler talked about the social impact of alcoholism, the violence in the home and effect on the workplace.

"You have to be supportive of AA," he said. "I'm glad you're all here today and I hope you benefit from what's being said."

To some too young to be at the seminar, the benefit comes in what is being done in the community.

B.J. Winchester talked about the foster children he and his wife take in, children who are victims of abuse and neglect, children taken from their homes because their parents have problems related to alcohol.

Steve Montgomery, with the Gila County Probation Department, said there are 255 people in adult probation. Eighty-five percent of those cases are drug- or alcohol-related.

Eighty-five percent is a figure that looms large in Payson schools, said Dean Pederson of the Payson Unified School District. That's the number of parents who consume more than one drink a night. Fifteen to 20 percent of students in the schools say their parents have a problem with alcohol.

"This creates a lot of problems in the family," Pederson said.

He said the kids have a way of hiding their problems, but when he looks in their eyes and starts talking about alcohol, he sees the tears that well up. He sees them look away, unable to talk about their problems at home.

"They learn really early not to trust anybody when they come from an alcoholic home," Pederson said. "It's extremely hard to teach kids who don't trust anybody."

Montgomery said there are 48 juveniles on probation in the Payson area. Another 100 students went through the Teen Court last year.

"The youngest we've had in our office was 9 years old," Montgomery said.

Knows no bounds
Dr. Robert Cuthbertson said the problem is one that crosses all economic barriers, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and affects people of all ages.

Cuthbertson said he has seen problems related to alcohol in retirement communities. After working all their lives, the retirees suddenly find themselves with fewer challenges.

"I saw this in Sun City. Alcohol is used as a sedative to relax or go to sleep. They have a drink, then more and more."

Cuthbertson described the medical problems he has seen in patients with histories of alcohol abuse, the destruction of the liver, obvious effects on the brain, personality disorders, ulcers, poor nutrition, and nerve damage.

He talked about alcoholic fetal syndrome that results in a poorly developed child that often has mental problems.

One woman in the audience said she is concerned about women who continue to abuse substances after they discover they're pregnant.

But it's hard for others to tell an alcoholic what to do, Cuthbertson said.

Cuthbertson said AA is the single greatest organization in the Payson area for those in need.

"Members of AA who are helping others are also helping themselves," he said. "I don't think alcoholism can be handled medically. It has to be handled with love and patience."

And, unfortunately for some alcoholics and their families, it's also handled within the law.

Bramlet said 11 Payson Police officers answer 500 calls a week, 70 percent of which are alcohol-related.

"The influence on the community is infinite," Bramlett said. "There isn't any way to judge. It's a major problem in Payson I don't think people are aware of."

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