After an hour of discussion Monday night, the Covington City Council decided to table the first reading of the city's new alcohol ordinance until a number of issues with the first draft are worked out.
It appears likely there will be a compromise on the $50 processing fee charged to all employees of restaurants that serve alcohol as it was initially written in the draft ordinance. Whether the city decides to extend its drinking hours remains up in the air.
A number of Covington's restaurant owners and managers attended the council's work session and meeting to share their concerns with the draft ordinance.
Chief among the issues raised was the desire by several restaurant/bar owners to see Covington's drinking hours extended.
While the majority of council members spoke in favor of extending the cutoff time, City Manager Steve Horton, who previously served as the city's chief of police, and current Police Chief Stacey Cotton cautioned against extending drinking hours.
Councilwoman Janet Goodman said she was in favor of extending the city's drinking hours to match that of Porterdale, which recently extended its weekend cutoff time to 1:45 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The current cutoff time in Covington is 12:45 a.m. and remains the same under the draft ordinance.
"I think we need to coincide with today's times," Goodman said.
Councilman Keith Dalton said he believed once the hotel/civic center opens there will be a greater demand for longer drinking hours from crowds leaving shows at the civic center.
Katie Mote, owner of Down the Hatch, a restaurant with a large concert hall, said having an early cutoff time is affecting her ability to attract big-name bands, as they usually prefer to go on stage late in the night.
"Our [crowd] capacity is far greater than most other establishments," Mote said. "We want to be an asset for Covington."
Debbie Harris, owner of 5 o'clock Somewhere, said she is tired of seeing customers leave her restaurant/bar after last call to drive to Conyers, which has longer drinking hours.
"As business owners, we have competition in the nearby counties," Harris said. "I do think we need an extension on the time."
Police Chief Cotton noted that in 2007 alone, the Covington Police Department responded to 200 service calls at the city's five establishments ostensibly operating as bars (the city's current ordinance does not allow establishments to operate as bars outright). Should the city extend its drinking hours, Cotton said he believed service calls to those establishments would only increase.
"The longer that they are open, the more [the customers] drink," Cotton said. "Is the amount of money going to Porterdale (due to the longer drinking hours) justified to the money spent on service calls?"
Also discussed Monday night was the annual $50 permit processing fee for police background checks. Covington Mayor Kim Carter said she was in favor of seeing a less restrictive background check requirement, one that would only apply to bartenders and servers and would also be less expensive.
Jim Stalvey, owner of Stalvey's Restaurant and Lounge, said he thought the $50 charge was too steep, especially in the current economy. Noting that no other municipality in the Atlanta area had such a high fee, Stalvey urged the council to lower the permit fee to something more affordable.
"It would be a hardship," Stalvey said, adding that some employees when they first begin work can barely afford the price of their new uniform let alone $50 for a background check "This is not the best time to do this for your restaurants unless you want to see them go broke."
The city of Conyers charges its bartenders and servers $20 for their alcohol permits. They must renew the permit each year. Currently there is no requirement that employees of restaurants in Covington submit to a background check and pay a fee.
R.L. Homes, owner of RL's Off the Square, said he was not opposed to an alcohol permit fee but would like to see it more in line with that charged by other municipalities.
Cotton, who asked that the permit fee be included in the draft ordinance, said the intent behind the background checks was to keep drug dealers and sex offenders from serving alcohol to the public. Cotton said he was in favor of doing national background checks, which cost $25, on all bartenders and restaurant managers.
The background checks the police department currently does cost $10 but only include offenses committed in Georgia Cotton said.
Councilman John Howard, who was not in attendance at Monday's meeting, left a memo expressing his opposition to the $50 permit fee.
Also discussed Monday night:
The city council came to a consensus in favor of amending the ordinance to allow outdoor dining and the issuance of permits for the serving of alcohol at special public events.
"I think as we revitalize the downtown, this is going to become more important," Carter said.
Carter also asked that the distance requirement of 100 yards for restaurants serving alcohol to churches be lowered to 50 yards.