City Council may vote Tuesday to place a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot to allow liquor stores in Statesboro. It’s on the agenda for the 9 a.m. regular meeting.
Because the office of mayor is up for election, a citywide election would have to occur on that date anyway, unless Mayor Jonathan McCollar emerges unopposed from the Aug. 16-20 candidate qualifying period. The council seats in District 1, where Phil Boyum is the incumbent, and District 4, where incumbent John Riggs is not seeking re-election, are also up for election.
A brief resolution that would initiate the referendum “to authorize the issuance of licenses for the package sale of distilled spirits” is included in Tuesday’s agenda packet. Bringing a referendum to legalize liquor stores in this way was impossible until May 4, when Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia Senate Bill 145 into law. Previously, a referendum for this purpose could only be initiated through a petition signed by at least 35% of the registered and qualified voters in a city or county.
“Senate Bill 145 did two things,” Statesboro City Attorney Cain Smith said Friday. “One is it lowered the petition threshold.”
Under the new law, if citizens petition for a referendum to allow package sales of distilled spirits, the signatures of only 20% of registered and qualified voters are required to put it on the ballot.
“But the one that’s more applicable for here,” Smith said, is the new provision that allows “the governing authority of any municipality or county” to initiate a liquor store referendum by ordinance or resolution.
So, if a majority of City Council members approve the resolution, no petition at all will be required.
Before this change in the law, bringing the question to a referendum in a town Statesboro’s size would have been very difficult because of the number of verified voter signatures needed, Smith said.
“And that’s why we hadn’t done anything on this, it was too difficult to get it to referendum prior to this Senate bill,” he said.
Smith prepared the resolution and City Clerk Leah Harden placed it on the agenda at the request of Boyum and District 3 City Council member Venus Mack.
To the county line
For years now, Statesboro has had legal “liquor by the drink,” with distilled beverages such as whisky, vodka, brandy and gin served in restaurants, and more recently, pubs and bars licensed as such.
But the city’s laws allow only non-distilled alcoholic beverages, such as beer and wine, to be sold from stores for off-premises consumption. Some business people, and occasionally city officials, have long argued that the main result of this, and of Bulloch County’s similar prohibition of liquor stores, is to send revenue across the county line to other communities.
“The city currently shoulders the responsibility and the cost of having alcohol in our community, specifically our restaurants, our grocery stores and our convenience stores,” Boyum said Friday. “However, we don’t receive the corresponding revenue to cover the needed public safety activities.”
He noted that the mayor and council have enacted some recent changes loosening restrictions on alcoholic beverages served for on-premises consumption and that McCollar has hailed these as progressive moves for economic development.
“As the mayor likes to point out, the City Council has modernized our ordinances regarding the sale of alcohol in restaurants and bars, and it’s time to give the citizens of the city the opportunity to voice their opinion on package stores in Statesboro,” Boyum said.
Based on the city’s population, an estimate of liquor purchases and of taxes amounting to about 3%, package sales could potentially generate anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 in annual revenue, he said.
“I will advocate for setting that money aside for community policing initiatives that include adding mental health and substance abuse professionals to the police staff,” Boyum said.
One direct source of revenue the city would have from any future liquor stores would be an excise tax of 22 cents per liter on wholesale distilled spirits. This already exists under the city’s Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance and is applied to purchases by restaurants, pubs and bars.
If the council passes the resolution and a majority of voters in the referendum approve allowing package sales, the mayor and council would then need to amend the city’s ordinance to reflect this, Smith said. Boyum said he would want the proposed ordinance amendments written for voters to see before early voting begins in the referendum.
Statesboro’s referendum would not affect the restriction on beverage sales outside the city limits in Bulloch County, and no county elections are scheduled this year.