A usually routine approval for city licenses to sell beer and wine raised a red flag for City Council members last week, after they learned one applicant has been cited multiple times for ABC violations.
“We ought to be questioning that,” said Councilman Steve Schewel.
“When are we going to start sending a new message, an official message that you can’t just regularly abuse your ABC license and there are no consequences?” he said.
One consequence can be denial of a privilege license for businesses with histories of Alcoholic Beverage Control violations, said state ABC spokeswoman Agnes Stevens.
According to City Attorney Patrick Baker, though, upholding that consequence could be difficult.
During a work session, the city finance department presented a list of 304 businesses applying to have beer and wine privilege licenses issued or renewed. Renewal applications come for council approval twice a year, and normally are approved with little if any comment.
But alcohol sales have become an issue for some neighborhood and crime-prevention organizations. Last September, the nonprofit Durham Together for Resilient Youth held an “Alcohol Round Table” with Partners Against Crime leaders, police and ABC officials to vent frustrations over alcohol outlets that sell to minors and become hubs for narcotics dealing and other criminal goings-on.
“Neighborhoods are looking for some action here,” said Councilman Mike Woodard.
Primary authority over alcohol sales lies with the state ABC Commission, which issues permits to local vendors. A new permit costs the vendor $400, Stevens said, and the vendor must have separate permits for beer, unfortified wine and fortified wine. Once issued, the licenses are re-registered annually, for $200 each, and nothing in the law allows the commission to withhold registration if a business has settled up for any violations during the previous year.
Once a vendor has its permit, it applies for a local privilege license that costs $15 a year. If the City Council wants to withhold a license for ABC violations, Baker said, it must hold a “quasi-judicial” hearing with evidence submitted and reach a verdict. If a license is denied, he said, the vendor may appeal to Superior Court, ABC permit in hand and ask why there is a problem if the state says it’s OK.
“These aren’t simple cases,” Baker said.
Nevertheless, the council wanted to do something. One idea was to make an example of the M.M. Fowler company, which applied for a license for its Beaver Bond Family Fare. According to Schewel, other stores owned by the company have been cited for ABC violations six times in the past year.
The idea was to “peel out” the Beaver Pond application when the list comes up to a vote at the council’s regular Monday, May 21, meeting – and give M.M. Fowler a chance to speak for itself.
“I’m anxious to hear from the company,” Schewel said.
That may or may not happen next week, but Councilman Eugene Brown raised a fiscal concern as well: The $15 charge for a beer and wine permit doesn’t even cover the city’s cost to administer the licensing.
In other states, such licenses cost hundreds of dollars, he said.
“We’re losing money on this, folks,” Brown said. “We are subsidizing the selling of alcohol throughout our community and this is not right.”