BOC votes against liquor referendum

COVINGTON -- Voters will not have the chance in November to decide whether the county should have liquor by the drink sales. A motion to place a liquor by the drink referendum on the general election ballot failed 3-2 Tuesday night at the Board of Commissioners meeting.

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming were in favor of a referendum, while Commissioners Mort Ewing, J.C. Henderson and Earnest Simmons were opposed.

Ewing said he wanted public input before the board voted, but there was no time given the deadlines the county would have to meet to get the referendum on the November ballot. Ewing said during his nearly 10 years on the board, it has always sought public input on sensitive issues.

"I personally think it's more of a social issue than an economic development issue," Ewing said, adding that counties serving alcohol by the drink, including Rockdale, Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton, have had the same budget woes as Newton.

"I don't think it's the fundraiser we're being told it will be. As a commissioner, I have to look at what's best from a business standpoint," he said, adding that the cost to police and control the consequences will be greater than the revenue generated.

Henderson said he also wanted public input before making a decision. Schulz countered that while public hearings are not required, it would be prudent for the board to give the public all the information about an ordinance regulating licensing and sales prior to the election. There would be plenty of time to solicit input into the wording of the ordinance between now and November, added Fleming, noting that the ordinance would not be passed until after the referendum was approved.

"It's not up to us to put our beliefs and values into this equation. We need to let the people decide," he said.

Chairman Kathy Morgan stated her support for a referendum, saying it is an economic development issue.

"I don't think any of us are proponents of drinking alcohol. I know consumption is a personal choice," Morgan said. "But statistics prove we are losing local jobs, businesses and sales tax because of these issues."

The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in support of a referendum.

"It is our belief that this ordinance, although the details and language have not yet been provided, will allow our county to encourage business advancement, economic development and tourism," it said.

At issue was whether to allow distilled spirits to be sold by the drink, and whether those sales should be permitted on Sunday.

The county's current alcohol ordinance allows retail package sales of beer and wine but not liquor. By-the-drink sales are not allowed. A referendum is not required to have beer and wine sales by the drink, but is necessary to serve distilled spirits.

County commissioners would have a lot of leeway in regulating licensing and sales through a local ordinance if a referendum passed, including location and timing of sales, requiring establishments make a certain percentage of money from food sales or that food be served every hour establishments are open, and even addressing attire of employees.

The county held a liquor-by-the-drink referendum in the late '90s and voters overwhelmingly voted it down. The board revisited the issue in 2003 and was opposed to holding another referendum.

At the BOC's retreat in February, Ewing requested a cost analysis of what by the drink sales would cost the county versus what it would bring in as well as information on the benefits seen by local municipalities from passing by the drink ordinances. During a work session Monday evening, Morgan said such a study would be too costly to conduct, with a price tag of $50,000 to $100,000.

Morgan said at Monday's work session that it wasn't up to the board to tackle moral or health issues associated with alcohol. She said the county has had ongoing requests from developers and residents for national chain restaurants. The Georgia Restaurant Association and the Wine and Spirits Association have indicated by-the-drink sales are a determining factor in where restaurants and hotels locate, she said.

Further, Newton has been losing tax dollars to neighboring counties for years, Morgan said, citing a study by Bleakly and Associates in conjunction with The Center for Community Preservation and Planning in 2008. The study indicates Newton County loses a whopping $742.4 million in retail sales annually to other counties, including Rockdale, Morgan, Henry and Walton.

Morgan said the sheriff has indicated allowing by the drink sales of alcohol would not likely make a huge impact on public safety services. She said some towns, like Snellville, have seen a decrease in DUIs since enacting such an ordinance.

Henderson said he's not closed-minded on the issue, but wants to hear from the public before making a decision.

"I think we should have public hearings first and then come back and decide whether to move forward," he said.