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Morgantown mayor moves quickly to snuff out street fires

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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012
 

When West Virginia University's football team wins, Morgantown often loses.

That's why Morgantown Mayor Jim Manilla is proposing what amounts to a $20-per-semester riot fee on WVU's 30,000 students. He said it could generate $1.2 million annually to help the city's police and fire departments fight street and trash can fires, as well as other mayhem, after Mountaineer victories.

“They (WVU) need to pay their fair share,” Manilla said. The fee would be tacked onto tuition, room and board costs that range from $14,976 to $27,754 a year for undergraduates.

The money would be used to hire more police and firefighters, Manilla said.

Unruly crowds set about 40 street and trash container fires on Saturday night and Sunday morning after WVU's 48-45 win over Texas, a week after a street fire damaged three vehicles and a house after the Mountaineers' 70-63 win over Baylor. Some of the mayhem was captured on video and posted on the Internet.

Bobbi Coffin of Mt. Lebanon, a 1979 WVU graduate whose daughter is a graduate student in Morgantown, is opposed to the mayor's proposed fee.

“(The burning is) a tradition that has been going on since I was there in the late '70s, and an extra $20 fee isn't going to change that. If anything, I think it might spur more people to burn things,” Coffin said.

Coffin suggested “institutionalizing” the postgame burning tradition by holding university-sponsored bonfires. “I think the fee would just be fueling the fire.”

“Obviously, something has to be done, but I don't know if putting an additional fee on students is the answer,” said James Strother, 41, of Ross, former president of the WVU Alumni Pittsburgh Chapter.

“The cost of going to school is already expensive, and imposing an added fee on 30,000 students to handle a couple of incidents seems a little excessive,” Strother said. “That extra revenue could pay for a lot of new (police officers and firefighters), but I'm not sure that's necessary year-round.”

Authorities said they charged five people with malicious burning in the latest incident, and 10 people were arrested on charges ranging from battery on an officer to alcohol-related offenses.

Police officers wearing riot gear used pepper spray and gas to disperse a rowdy crowd of about 1,000 people who gathered in the streets. Some of them responded by throwing bottles, rocks and other objects at police.

While past incidents largely have been confined to football season, street fires have broken out after other sporting events and, in May 2011, when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.

University officials lashed out at the vandals.

“We're going to do anything we can to change this culture of celebrating victories with fire,” said Ken Gray, WVU's vice president of student affairs.

President Jim Clements called last weekend's events “completely unacceptable, dangerous and inexcusable,” and said WVU will take a tough stance on such behavior.

In the past year, he noted, 40 WVU students have been expelled or suspended for related violations.

Morgantown authorities earlier this year made malicious burning a felony in an effort to curtail the tradition.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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