Alcohol seems to be the biggest local issue in the General Election on Nov. 8.|Lauren Thornton Tobin

Hartselle Split for Wet-Dry Vote

By Lauren Thornton Tobin|Hartselle Enquirer

There is an invisible line separating Hartselle residents. On one side stands the ‘Yes’ people and the other, the ‘No.’

The Wet/Dry vote is quickly approaching, bringing with it the possibility of alcohol returning to the city for the first time since 1933. There doesn’t seem to be many citizens who are neutral on the issue. Everyone has his or her own reason for wanting Hartselle to serve or not to serve alcohol.

Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Administrator Mac Gibson and Government Relations Manager Dean Argo spoke at the Hartselle Rotary Club meeting on Oct. 11 and outlined how ABC works with local governments and businesses to bring alcohol to a formerly dry town. They also addressed citizens’ concerns.

“The local government, if the citizens choose to go wet, decides how licenses operate,” Argo said. “All ABC does is issue the license. Most rules about how businesses operate comes from local government and we’re not trying to infringe on that unless the rules conflict with state laws.”

This response almost directly answers one concern of the Families for a Safe Hartselle group leader Jeff Johnson.

Johnson said he knew of two cases, one in Opelika and one in Gulf Shores, where the local government did not want alcohol in their movie theaters, but the ABC Board overruled them.

According to an article from the Opelika Auburn News on Oct. 4, the majority of city council members voted in favor of beer and wine being sold at an upcoming movie theater, with one councilman abstaining. A previous article published on April 24, 2014 from Opelika/Auburn area newspaper The Corner cites that in 2013, the Gulf Shores City Council did vote against the movie theater serving beer and wine, and the owners of the theater did appeal to the ABC Board.

Gibson said the ABC Board has the ability to override local government decisions, but only when it came to beer and wine, not liquor.

“What we do is give (business owners) the application and when they’re in the city limits, we can’t act until the council approves (alcohol sales). Once the council approves, we can only override the city’s decision if we have a compelling reason to,” he said. “That’s the key – the city has to decide what they want and how many stores to have.”

“We’re responsible for issuing state licenses on and off premise,” Gibson said. “ ‘On’ would be restaurants and bars, ‘Off’ would be your gas stations, package stores and grocery stores.”

Having alcohol so easily accessible is another issue proponents of the ‘No’ group have. Johnson said he has seen studies that indicate more alcohol availability leads to an increase in consumption and an increase in crime.

Both Gibson and Argo said one positive of the ABC is the control factor.

“If you have an ordinance that deals with it, you can control it,” Argo said. “If you believe alcohol is not here, you’re turning a blind eye.”

He further explained that licenses will be issued strictly on what kind of business is serving the alcohol.

“There’s a different perception of people having a restaurant and a lounge,” Argo said. “If you apply as a restaurant, you’re going to be a restaurant.”

Gibson elaborated, saying that for a restaurant to be considered a restaurant, it must have proper equipment and appliances.

“You’re not going to get a restaurant license and have two tiny burners,” he said. “We want to make sure the license fits the type of operation. We don’t want a bar or lounge to have the ability to let young people in, and if there’s no sufficient cooking appliances, it’s a bar or lounge.”

Lee Greene Jr., of Hartselle Citizens for Economic Development, said he understands the concern about the issue.

“This is unusual for us. We’ve been dry since 1933 and the ABC Board is foreign to us,” he said. “We’ve never dealt with this before but we want people to understand they have a regular board. The opposition says there will be no local control but that’s not true. We want people to see there is plenty of local and state control.”

Johnson said those opposing alcohol are also concerned about the health of Hartselle citizens and the effect alcohol may have on their bodies.

He said that around 25 to 33 percent of the city’s 14,466 residents, based on a 2013 U.S. Census report, completely abstain from alcohol, which means that the other 75 to 67 percent would need to drink double in order to create the revenue that ‘Yes’ proponents claim alcohol sales will bring to the city.

“We are advocating for people to consider the health of other people,” he said. “A study said light alcohol use can lead to breast cancer and October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – it’s good to discuss.”

According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, a study of 58,000 women with breast cancer showed that women who drank more than 45 grams of alcohol a day, approximately three drinks, were one and a half times more likely to develop breast cancer than nondrinkers. It also said alcohol consumption, even less than one drink per day, increases chances of breast cancer by 7 percent.

When asked about other cancer factors such as smoking, air pollution and obesity, Johnson said there is not a vote on any of those issues.

Lee said since the age for alcohol consumption is 21, if someone is an adult and responsible, he doesn’t see where there’s a problem. He went on to explain that just because Hartselle doesn’t currently sell alcohol, he doesn’t believe that it isn’t already here.

In 2012, Decatur City Council reduced its budget by $185,000 in anticipation of Hartselle residents voting in favor of alcohol sales, an amount Lee said the city could use.

“We’re not preventing anyone from drinking by being dry,” he said. “It’s already here, we’re just getting revenues.”

Johnson disagreed, saying he hasn’t seen any strong evidence indicating the actual amount of tax revenue increasing.

He referenced a 2007 city-funded study that sought out different types of businesses to bring to an area for the most economical growth.

“The Buxton Study from the county commission was done … and based on the Buxton Study, alcohol sales would bring millions. But if you look at it, that was before Priceville, Cullman and Moulton went wet, and Decatur had Sunday liquor sales,” he said.

Johnson said his second problem with the tax revenue argument is that the increase of revenue only amounts to approximately $1,100 per person if everyone in the city purchases alcohol.

“(The ‘Yes’ group)’s numbers are all over the board. I’ve heard people say it will fund schools and departments in the city, but there’s not as much to go around,” he said, explaining that the extra revenue will be offset by the need for additional officers to enforce laws and city personnel to handle the licensing. “That money goes down pretty quick.”

While it seems everyone has an opinion either absolutely in favor of or absolutely against alcohol sales, the majority will speak on Nov. 8.

 

 

 

 

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