First, what Statesboro City Council approved Tuesday on a 4-1 vote was a first reading of the Package Stores Ordinance, so it’s not city law yet.
It would become city law if adopted by a majority of the council on a second reading. That could happen at the 5:30 p.m. Feb. 15 meeting, after which the ordinance is slated to take effect March 15. Only then would the city begin accepting applications from prospective liquor store owners for either licenses or optional “location reservations,” which would give them 180 days to start construction or renovation of a store, another 180 days to build it, and with extenuating circumstances possibly a 180-day extension to complete it, prior to the granting of an actual license.
Second, in a variation from the draft City Attorney Cain Smith had prepared before the meeting, the council removed the rule, which is still a default provision in state law, that any liquor store must be at least 200 yards from any college campus. A change in Georgia law in 2020 made this requirement subject to removal at local option, Smith reported. The 200-yard distance remains the mandatory minimum, under Georgia law, for school buildings – such as elementary, middle and high schools – and other educational buildings that are not part of college campuses.
Thousand yards apart
But with Tuesday’s preliminary vote, the council left in place local provisions, informally agreed to in a work session last week, increasing the minimum distance between liquor stores to 1,000 yards from the state-required minimum of 500 yards and requiring each store to encompass at least 3,000 square feet of showroom and product storage area.
The minimum distance of a liquor store from any church, any housing authority property or any government-owned alcohol treatment center will be 100 yards, which is also the state minimum.
Third, after passionate disagreement Tuesday, especially between Mayor Jonathan McCollar and District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum, the council left a section in the ordinance that makes it “a stated policy goal” to allocate at least 50% of the city’s excise tax revenue from liquor stores to social services contracts with qualified 501c3 nonprofit organizations to provide youth services and other social services in Statesboro.
District 4 Councilman John Riggs, who had previously expressed his desire to see at least a portion of the revenue directed to public safety, and especially to hiring and equipping police officers, rekindled Tuesday’s debate on the social services goal.
“If we’re going to put 50 percent towards youth programs, I suggest we put the other 50 percent towards police,” Riggs said. “We need more police officers.”
Boyum then asked Smith if money from excise taxes goes into the city’s general fund, and Smith confirmed that it does.
“We can’t really legislatively obligate general fund money, so really this phrase is a little bit inappropriate, because every year we do a budget, and that’s when we decide,” Boyum said. “So this can be a suggestion, but we’re not bound by … this … because every year we’re charged with putting the budget together. So, having that provision in there or starting to nitpick at legislating where we’re going to spend money is a really bad idea.”
The current mayor and council cannot bind future councils on decisions about how money will be spent, he noted.
Riggs at first said he would agree to leave both spending commitments out of the ordinance, to discuss these at budget time. Other council members expressed opinions on both sides of this.
Smith, the city attorney, said the wording of the provision on the use of the revenue makes it a nonbinding “stated policy goal” and that the city has included these in other ordinances.
“This is not something that is binding on council. It is just a mission statement, essentially,” Smith said.
McCollar and Boyum
The mayor then began his defense of the provision, noting that when the council agreed to adopt as city commissions the Youth Commission and other community panels created by McCollar and volunteers, the council expressly stated that it would not fund these.
“So this language is perfectly put in here because we’re not taking away from any organization, we’re not taking away from roads, we’re not taking away from public safety….,” McCollar said. “What we’re doing is saying that we’re dedicating, not just to youth, but to other social services, people that’s in need of food, people that’s in need of housing, people may be homeless.”
While the city spends millions of dollars a year on public safety, the 50% goal would direct about $150,000 a year to “helping the most vulnerable,” he said.
“That’s all we’re saying. We’re making that commitment…,” McCollar said. “I think that this is a huge opportunity for us to help people in our community.”
He said the city one year spent $500,000 on vehicles for the Police Department and that at a recent meeting the council approved spending $266,000 “on a tractor.”
“But we won’t put a line item in to serve the most vulnerable people in our community? And then when we talk about giving $150,000 for the homeless, for our youth in our community, this is an issue for this council? Not even for this council, it’s not for the council, it’s for certain individuals,” McCollar said.
But Boyum had Smith read out the title of the proposed ordinance, “Retail package sale of distilled spirits for consumption off-premises.”
“These are rules for the liquor stores,” Boyum said. “If we want to have a discussion about children, about cops, about youth, about funding about budgets, that’s for the budget! We have a process for that. … Let’s make rules for liquor stores, and we can talk about spending the money we make from the liquor stores once the liquor stores are up. Until then, all we’re doing is bringing politics into what should be business ordinances.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Boyum noted that when he proposed increasing funding to the Boys & Girls Club during a previous year’s budget process, McCollar and other council members did not support this.
District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack asked who had put the goal for 50% to go to social services into the ordinance. McCollar noted that during a previous work session he recommended this. Mack said she thought the council should take Riggs’ recommendation just as seriously as the mayor’s.
“John has a voice too, and I do not agree that 50 percent should go to youth and 50 percent should go to police,” Mack said. “I do not agree with that, but let’s come to some … medium that everybody can be happy, because … we have to do what’s best for Statesboro, and we have to agree on it.”
A motion Boyum offered to approve the ordinance first reading with the “Use of Excise Tax Proceeds” section removed failed for lack of a second.
Eventually, District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers made the motion, seconded by District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr, to approve the first reading with the 200-yard rule removed with respect to college campuses but keeping the goal for 50% of the excise tax revenue to go to social services.
Boyum cast the one “no” vote. Riggs, the last of the four other council members to say “aye,” then commented that he wouldn’t necessarily vote the same way two weeks from now.