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BOC opposes by-the-drink alcohol sales
Referendum was also struck down in 1998
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There will not be an alcohol by the drink referendum on this year's Nov. 2 General Election ballot in Newton County, as the Board of Commissioners voted down a resolution Tuesday night that would have put the issue to a public vote.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz made a motion to approve the resolution and was supported by District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming, but commissioners Mort Ewing, J.C. Henderson and Earnest Simmons voted against the resolution.

Alcohol by the drink has long been a controversial subject for unincorporated Newton County, with many in the development and retail business communities supporting alcohol sales, while some religious leaders and others don't want to see alcohol sales expand. The proposed change would have allowed only restaurants to sell beer, wine and liquor. Grocery stores have previously been allowed to sell beer and wine. However, the change would still not have allowed bars to be opened, and alcohol sales for restaurants would have been limited to certain areas of the county.

However, that very divisiveness caused Ewing and Henderson to oppose a November referendum. Both commissioners stated they wanted to have public hearings and get more input on the subject before committing to a public referendum.

"In my nine and a half years on this board, we've always had public input on any issue, particularly sensitive issues like Bear Creek reservoir, impact fees and many, many others," Ewing said. "It concerns me that we are not giving the people of the county an opportunity to voice their opinion on the front end."

However, Schulz said that public hearings could still be held prior to Nov. 2, even if the BOC approved the resolution.

In opposition, Ewing also noted that many Metro Atlanta counties that allow alcohol by the drink have not been spared in the economic downturn.

"As it relates to economic development, there's been a lot said about that. I personally think it's more a social issue than an economic development issue," he said.

In her introduction of the topic, Chairman Kathy Morgan told the board they were not there to discuss moral or health issues. Ewing said he respected that position but was concerned that all the merits of the issue would not be discussed.

Simmons, whose densely-populated district would arguably be the most affected by the ordinance change, did not publically share any thoughts.
Before the vote, Morgan asked the commissioners to vote in favor of the issue, because she believed it would be an economic development benefit.

"I want to tell you I don't think any of us are proponents (of drinking) alcohol. I know that consumption of alcohol is a personal choice. However, statistics prove we are losing jobs, businesses and sales tax to our neighboring communities because of this issue," Morgan said. "I do not support bars or alcohol sales alone, but I do support quality restaurant options."

Morgan went on to read a letter from chamber President Hunter Hall, who expressed support for putting alcohol by the drink to a public vote. In the letter, Hall said he believed alcohol by the drink would encourage business advancement, economic development and tourism.

"1. The Chamber supports the opportunity to recruit retail that is associated with the ordinance," Hall wrote. "2. The Chamber supports the opportunity for increased tax revenue to the county and subsequently keeps retail dollars from leaving Newton County to surrounding counties."

However, he said in the letter that the chamber did not survey its membership, nor did its Board of Directors officially vote. Ewing pointed this out and said it proved that the BOC was rushing to make a decision.

In the letter, Hall did say the chamber would help gather information and data related to a proposed alcohol ordinance prior to the Nov. 2 election.
Schulz and Fleming both felt the public should be allowed to vote on the issue, and Fleming said the county would have plenty of time before Nov. 2 to draft an alcohol ordinance they would be comfortable with.

The two commissioners were, at least partially, swayed by the findings presented at Monday's night work session. Although the county could not afford to conduct a formal study on the possible affects of alcohol by the drink, which would have cost around $50,000 or more, Morgan said, employees did attempt to study economic and crime affects.

At the work session, Morgan said that property developers wanted to be able to attract national chain restaurants to serve as anchors to future developments and that residents wanted to eat at those "Mid-American" restaurants, such as Chili's, Olive Garden, Outback, T.G.I. Fridays and Red Lobster.

Developer Lou Passarella, owner of Passarella Devlopment, said he believed Newton County had missed out on opportunities. He pointed to all of the restaurants in Rockdale and other counties, which are strategically located right on the Newton County border to capture Newton sales tax dollars.
The county's presentation also showed that it loses $742.4 million of retail sales per year to surrounding counties, part of which was likely related to a lack of medium to higher-end restaurants in the county. The presentation said that Newton County was only capturing about 80 percent of the food and drinking revenue it should be.

One other significant point showed the number of DUI's issued by the Snellville Police Department over the years. When Snellville passed liquor by the drink in 2004, it saw its numbers steadily decline. Not everyone in attendance was convinced that liquor by the drink was the sole cause of that, including Stone Mountain Baptist Association official Larry Cheek.

And that brings Newton County back full circle, because Cheek was one of the leading opponents when alcohol by the drink was last brought to a public vote in 1998.

More than 11,000 voters turned out for the 1998 General Election, and 53 percent of them voted against the referendum, according to a previous article in The Covington News.