Newton is a dry county, but some commissioners feel its time to hold another public vote on liquor by the drink to see if public sentiment has changed.
Many in the business community have been pushing for beer, wine and liquor by the drink sales for years, and as far as county officials could remember the last public referendum was held in 1998.
Liquor by the drink refers to the ability for businesses to sell single drinks for consumption on the premises, like a restaurant or bar, as opposed to a package store. While beer and wine sales can be approved by a county board of commissioners at any time, liquor by the drink sales have to be approved by a majority of public voters.
The Newton Board of Commissioners discussed alcohol sales at their retreat this past weekend, including whether a vote should be held, when it should be held and what a possible alcohol beverage regulation ordinance would look like.In order for a vote to be taken, the BOC has to approve a resolution calling for a public referendum. The BOC came to an informal consensus that if liquor by the drink was approved by the public, the county would include beer and wine sales in the alcohol ordinance as well. If liquor was not approved, beer and wine would also not be allowed.
One of the reasons Newton County has remained dry for so many years is that many residents and officials have concerns about the presence of bars, the possible increase in public safety costs and, likely, more abstract moral issues.
One popular idea for a future ordinance was putting very strict regulations on where alcohol could be sold, for example only in very dense areas. In addition, restrictions could be placed in an ordinance to prevent the creation of bars, by forcing businesses that sold liquor to have to make the majority of their money from food sales, and define food as something other than traditional bar fare.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing questioned the benefit of having alcohol by the drink sales in the county
Chairman Kathy Morgan said she had heard from the business community that certain restaurant chains won’t come to Newton if its dry, some higher-end hotels won’t move to the county if its dry and that some landowners are being forced to be annexed into cities in order to be able to sell their land to the restaurants that require alcohol sales.
District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming said restaurants make their money off of liquor and beer sales, and he said the additional sales tax could be a benefit.
However, Ewing said the Newton County Sheriff’s Office told him that for every $1 of additional sales tax revenue, a city or county has to spend $2 to $3 on additional public safety costs.
"I don’t want anybody to think this will be a huge money maker," he said. "It’s fine if we’re looking at it for social reasons."
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said that alcohol sales are important to revenue, based on her experience as owner of The Oaks Golf Course. She said she previously lost much of her banquet clientele to places that did sell alcohol.
"When you look at our bottom line sales, we have to go to liquor. We don’t necessarily want to but we have to help the bottom line," she said. "Beer and wine by themselves don’t address most of the concerns."
As far as public safety costs, she said that burden should fall on the businesses and come out of their revenue. She said when they hold a banquet, she often hires a sheriff’s deputy or private security officer.
In order to reduce costs, Morgan suggested that alcohol sales be restricted to only the most dense areas of the county, like Salem Road and the future development nodes that are planned for the Oak Hill and Almon communities. Schulz said that Salem Road got mainly fast-food establishments instead of sit-down restaurants because of the inability to sell alcohol.
Morgan asked if there was a way to write in an ordinance that a business would lose its liquor license if it had a certain number of 911 calls about it. County Attorney Tommy Craig said this was a problem, because other businesses could make erroneous calls about their competitors. However, County Attorney Jenny Carter said she believed police departments reviewed any convictions for alcohol related offenses when reviewing liquor license applications.
Craig said one interesting question was whether, once a liquor license was given out, it was a privilege or a right. He said if it’s a privilege, a license can be taken away much more easily than if it’s a right. This is important because the county doesn’t want restaurants to be able to turn into low-quality bars, but at the same time businesses invest a lot of money in order to get a liquor licenses, and they don’t want their business at stake every year when they apply for a license. The last he had heard, licenses were viewed as a right.
Carter said ordinances can even be written to prohibit alcohol-selling establishment from having pool tables or dart boards. She said the ordinance could be very strong.
Craig said, from past experience, if the public thinks there is going to be low-quality bars on every corner, they will probably be against it. However, if they see it as bringing restaurants like Longhorn’s and Red Lobster to the county, than they’re more likely to be supportive.
Craig said the attorney who represents the local Kroger told him that two large, popular national chains would come to Newton County if it allowed alcohol by the drink sales.
The board had a consensus to have Craig’s office look further into a public vote and future ordinance. Possible public votes dates included July 20 or the Nov. 2 general election. The board seemed to be leaning toward the Nov. 2 date, if a vote is going to be held.
Ewing requested that a fiscal impact study of liquor by the drink be conducted to determine whether the county would lose or gain money.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he opposed moving forward, because no one in his district has yet told him he is in favor of having alcohol by the drink. Currently, the cities of Covington, Newborn and Porterdale allow liquor by the drink.
Commissioners were told to send any questions or concerns to Carter by April 1, and then the BOC would hold another work session.