Liquor by the drink refers to the ability for businesses, like restaurants, to sell single drinks of distilled spirits for consumption on the premises. Retail sales at convenience, grocery and package stores fall under a separate category. Currently, the county allows for retail sales of beer and wine only, but not liquor.
The BOC could at any time approve beer and wine by the drink, but liquor-by-the-drink sales have to be approved by a majority of voters in a public referendum. Most chain restaurants sell beer, liquor and wine, so approving one and not the other would likely limit businesses from coming to Newton County.
In addition to these basic rules, the county attorney’s office wrote up a proposed alcohol ordinance. The ordinance would be approved by the BOC later, separately from the liquor-by-the-drink referendum.
The proposed ordinance would have limited by-the-drink sales to restaurants and prevented the formation of bars, by requiring establishments to make at least 50 percent of more of their profits from food. The ordinance also would have limited by-the-drink sales to three designated zoning areas, where high growth is expected.
Currently, the cities of Covington, Newborn and Porterdale allow liquor-by-the-drink sales.
Tuesday’s decision by the Newton County Board of Commissioners not to put the county alcohol-by-the-drink issue to a public vote left some residents confused.
Many questioned the rational of commissioners Mort Ewing and J.C. Henderson, who voted against a Nov. 2 public referendum because they said they wanted to hold public hearings before deciding whether to vote on having a public referendum.
District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons also voted against holding a public referendum but did not share his thoughts Tuesday night. However, in an e-mail Wednesday evening, Simmons said he also wanted to hold public hearings before considering approving a referendum.
Even Chairman Kathy Morgan and District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz were confused at the vote of their fellow commissioners. They both believed that the board had decided at its February retreat to have public hearings once a referendum was approved.
"A referendum is the ultimate public meeting," Morgan said. When asked what public feedback she had received concerning Tuesday’s vote, she added, "People did not say they want or did not want alcohol sales; the issue is ‘Why would these three commissioners not allow us to vote. Why do they think that we can’t make a decision?’"
However, Ewing and Henderson said they both believed that the board had decided February to hold public hearings ahead of time. In addition, Ewing requested a fiscal study in February, but received no update on a study until Monday’s work session — he was told the county couldn’t afford a study. He also would have like for the public to be able to study a proposed alcohol ordinance before deciding whether to have a referendum.
Finally, at Monday’s work session, County Attorney Jenny Carter brought up the issue of whether the county wanted to allow alcohol-by-the-drink sales on Sundays. Ewing said he had never heard this discussed previously.
"Historically, when you are doing the public’s business, you hold all the public information meetings on the front end to get people’s perspectives on the issue," Ewing said Thursday. "The concern I expressed is that this is a complex, complicated issue. I didn’t think it was fair to put issues on the ballot when in fact we did not know all the details of the issue ourselves."
According to a recording of the February work session taken by The Covington News, the board did discuss a timeline for researching the issue, but no mention of public hearings can be heard during that discussion.
In addition to the feeling that he was not prepared, Ewing said that no District 1 constituents requested that the county revisit this issue. Henderson echoed these sentiments in February and said at the time he was opposed to a referendum.
However, Schulz said she believed the appropriate time to hold public hearings and study the issues in more depth was after the board approved a referendum.
"I’m not sure why we would expend the dollars with public hearings to determine whether to put it on a referendum. That’s a cost to the county, but once we put on, then we should absolutely spend money to make sure we have both sides of the argument," Schulz said Thursday.
On Thursday, Henderson said public hearings before voting on a referendum were a courtesy to the voters. In addition, he said he wanted to hear from the sheriff. At the Monday work session, the county presented statistics from the Snellville Police Department that showed the city experienced a steady decline in DUIs after it passed liquor by the drink in 2004.
"Usually Sheriff Ezell Brown would give a report," Henderson said. "I understand that Snellville (had success), but what’s that got to do with Newton County."
Brown was out of town the past couple of days. Morgan said Monday that Brown had told her he didn’t think allowing alcohol sales at restaurants in the unincorporated county would significantly affect his department.
He told The News Thursday that his department had no position on the issue. He said alcohol sales might increase costs to his department, but his department had not studied the issue in depth.
"I think at some point in time we can look at other counties and look at their statistics and we may be able to develop some sort of study," Brown said.
Schulz was also concerned that this vote sends the wrong message to developers. She said over the past year, the county has worked on its 2050 plan, which includes creating town centers in the county, where dense population will be promoted. She said these areas have strict development regulations and zoning overlays to ensure high-quality development.
"We asked the developers to do all the giving, but we didn’t allow for giving on the other side," Schulz said. "Why would the developers along Salem Road want to participate in an overlay now? What is their incentive?"
She said it could also lead to more annexations of county property by cities that do allow alcohol sales.
"There was a much bigger domino affect to this no vote than just the referendum," Schulz said.
The chamber expressed its support for a referendum prior to Tuesday’s vote; however, Ewing noted Tuesday night that the Chamber’s Board of Directors had not voted in favor, nor had the membership been polled. Chamber President Hunter Hall said Thursday the chamber would take these steps the next time this issue was discussed.
The BOC had to approve a referendum Tuesday to meet county Board of Elections and state deadlines in order to get the vote on the Nov. 2 ballot.
All commissioners said they were willing to reconsider the issue in the future.