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I-1183 will have an impact on Alcohol Impact Areas, but not nearly as much as feared

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Nov. 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
November 4, 2011 4:54 pm

An e-mail that was distributed today by the longtime leader of the Hilltop Action Coalition raises some questions and quite of bit of concern about how the liquor privatization Initiative 1183 will affect Alcohol Impact Areas if it passes Tuesday.

Those are the areas that have a high concentration of what are politely termed chronic public inebriates. Once the area is established, the city can request of the state Liquor Control Board that products that are cheap and have high alcohol content be banned.

Currently those products are usually fortified wines that can otherwise be sold in stores with beer and wine licenses. If 1183 passes and hard liquor sales are allowed in the AIA in Tacoma, will street drunks simply buy cheap booze instead?

And will there be a huge increase of liquor sales in Lincoln, downtown, the Hilltop and the eastern part of the North End currently covered by the AIA?

Hilltop Action Coalition pioneer Jeanie Peterson expressed two major fears in her e-mail. The first is that the same irresponsible convenience store owners who contributed to the problems with fortified wine could sell hard liquor. The second is that activists will have to go through the process of getting individual liquor products banned that they went through to get individual wine and beer products banned.

The first worry shouldn’t be a worry. The second one is true but nothing in the initiative prevents the Liquor Board from acting to ban certain products once a case has been made that those products are contributing to problems.

Peterson reads the initiative to say that all stores currently licensed to sell beer and wine will automatically be licensed to sell hard liquor. That’s not what the measure says. While it considers all existing stores with beer and wine licenses to be considered “now licensed” under current law, they are only given that status in one section of the law. That is the process that allows churches and public institutions to object to a new licensee near them and prohibits new licenses within 500 feet of a school if the school objects.

So while existing licensees could not be blocked using this process, those same stores would still have to make application and if they are less than 10,000 square feet they would be denied. The average convenience store has less than 3,000 square feet.

Peterson then talks about the exception in the initiative that would allow smaller stores to qualify for licenses if there are “no retail spirits license holder in the trade area that the applicant proposes to serve.”

“Since there isn’t a definition for Trade Area, that means the Liquor Control Board will have to define that AFTER the Initiative has been passed,” Peterson wrote. “So, we would be voting for something that hasn’t even been decided upon. What is the trade area, one block, 2 blocks, 2 miles? Will it be different things in different areas? Hilltop has 23 stores that had liquor licenses when we did this work.”

Peterson is correct that the initiative leaves it up to the board to determine rules defining trade areas. But even opponents of the measure who want to paint it in the worst possible light don’t suggest it could be measured in blocks, but miles – five-mile circles in rural areas and one-mile circles in cities. Even that, especially in cities, is unlikely to be accepted by the liquor board.

And there is one more tool that could be used. The initiative says that a convenience store that wants to sell in an unserved trade area can still be denied if the applicant has “committed more than one public safety violation within the three years preceding application.”

All that said, there are several grocery stores in the AIA that are larger than 10,000 square feet that do qualify such as Safeway and Save-A-Lot on Hilltop and Tacoma City Grocers downtown. And Peterson is correct that once hard liquor sales begin within the AIA the city and neighborhood activists must make a case – product-by-product – that that product is causing problems.

“Our AIA is product-based, so in effect they only restrict products we focus in on,” she wrote. “So a product has to become a problem, be identified (with evidence) as a problem, then go thru a process to eliminate it, creating a whole new process for us when we’ve already done the work, and should have this protection.”

Liquor Board Spokesman Brian Smith said nothing in the initiative changes the laws and rules governing alcohol impact areas. But he said Peterson’s description of the process is accurate.

“Assuming the City made its case for restricting certain liquor products, I believe the Board could allow those products to be restricted,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Because AIAs take a laser approach aimed at specific products, there wouldn’t be a blanket ban on liquor products.”

Here’s the e-mail that Peterson sent out to members of the Hilltop Action Coalition:

Important message for people who live in an Alcohol Impact Area (AIA)

[Note: in the interests of the time it takes to write this report I didn’t confirm all my dates listed herein, so some of them may be a bit off, but the basic content and message is accurate] Also note that to keep this short I have given you an outline of issue above with details below (if you want to read more to understand the issues).

First off, let me tell you I am not against responsible private businesses selling alcohol, HOWEVER, not all private businesses are responsible, and this ordinance could mean that the same stores that we’ve had problems with on many issues would now be able to act irresponsibly with spirits. Other issues we’ve seen from some area Convenience Stores:

They enable drug dealing/prostitution in their parking lots
They sell alcohol/cigarettes to underage patrons
They sell alcohol to people who are already drunk
They sell drug paraphernalia

Any of these stores that currently have a liquor license would be able to sell spirits without getting approval for it:

Nuts and Bolts (if you read nothing else, PLEASE read this)
The work that the Hilltop community did on the AIA is in jeopardy because of Initiative 1183, and I think you should know that. We’ve got it pretty good right now on the Hilltop, compared to what it was before, we still have problems, and we need to continue to work, but one of our issues has been partly resolved because we are in an AIA zone.

As most of you know we have a lot of homeless people in our area, partly because we have most of the feeding programs here (in addition we have a lot of other social services that needy people use, which often means they live in this area to stay close to services). For an explanation on that see the paragraph marked An Area Already Addressing Issues.

A problem arose in 2001 when all of the downtown Chronic Public Inebriates (CPI’s) [AKA Street drunks] were displaced, almost all moved to the next closest location, which was the Hilltop. Within a month we had @ 100 CPI’s sleeping on our public benches, in our alleys, on our front and back porches, in the business entrances, etc. One of the side effects of this was a lot of glass litter, we had bottle everywhere, some whole, many broken. It was also very common for us to have ‘man-down’ calls, where we would find someone passed out on our front lawns, etc.

Police and Fire would have to come, and this would mean a trip to the emergency room (which taxpayers paid for at $1000+). After 2 years we were awarded an AIA zone, 1 year after that a study was conducted by WSU which revealed it was a great success, both socially and economically it was a win for us. We still have many of the same CPI’s in our area but they buy lower alcohol content drinks which ‘take the edge off’ but don’t turn them into fall-down belligerent drunks. With the availability of spirits, the CPI’s will have access to higher-alcohol content beverages again [creating the opportunity for them to get very drunk…fast), and those who weren’t responsible before will probably fall into the same model.

How Initiative 1183 will impact our AIA:
There is a lot of press about this issue, both sides are giving us contradicting information, so when I refer to something I am also going to reference where the reference is in the Washington State Voters Pamphlet (November 8, 2011 edition) by page and paragraph (counting all paragraphs, not just full ones, these will be in brackets [ ]. Actual language will be in italics.

Our AIA is product-based, so in effect they only restrict products we focus in on, so a product has to become a problem, be identified (with evidence) as a problem, then go thru a process to eliminate it. Creating a whole new process for us when we’ve already done the work, and should have this protection. This is important because of the issue in bullet #3.

There are lots of safeguards/requirements listed in the first part [page 44, column 2, items (g), (h), (i), etc]. But these apply to NEW businesses that want to sell spirits, as you will see in bullet #3, existing stores with liquor licenses will already be considered licensed for spirit sales.

Ads state that the Initiative prevents Convenience Stores and Gas Stations from selling spirits, this isn’t true: We will be impacted because anyone who currently has a liquor license will be able to sell Spirits, if you look at the business models of some stores you will see that some looked at this as a business, they didn’t care whether it was harming the neighborhood, they were in it for the money only. [Page 45, column 2, paragraph 5, under (b) “However, existing grocery premises licensed to sell beer and/or wine are deemed to be premises “now licensed…” (for spirit retail licenses).”] this means that CPI’s who live in our neighborhood, so generally stay in our neighborhood, will have local access to high-alcohol content drinks again.

Another provision that will allow Convenience Stores and Gas Stations to sell spirits is the lack of definition for the Initiative’s term “Trade Area” (confirmed by LCB Director of Communications, Brian Smith during a phone interview, 11/03/11, 360-664-1774) [page 45, paragraph 6 & 7, marked (c) and (i), at the end of (c) is a line which states …if such applicant is otherwise qualified and the board determines that: (i) There is no retail spirits license holder in the trade area that the applicant proposes to serve:” Since there isn’t a definition for Trade Area, that means the Liquor Control Board (LCB) will have to define that AFTER the Initiative has been passed. So, we would be voting for something that hasn’t even been decided upon. What is the trade area, one block, 2 blocks, 2 miles? Will it be different things in different areas? Hilltop has 23 stores that had liquor licenses when we did this work. But could this mean more, either way, I hate that this means the ads are lying to us.

There are no other AIA-related errors in the ads; however, there were a couple others that are disturbing to me, based on my knowledge of how things work:

Ads state that this initiative will provide lots of money for law enforcement, fire, essential services, and some (imply) that additional oversight over those who sell alcohol would be paid for from that money. [Page 22, paragraph 7 has the breakdown of how the money generated would be deposited].

Pay off Admin. Costs,
to state accts for specific purposes
border cities
50% to State General Fund, 10% to counties, 40% to cities and towns.

This money goes into the General Fund, which are spent at the discretion of the legislators (similar to when we were told that the State Lottery would be spent on education, well, it was put in the General Fund, and then used for whatever the Senators and Reps. wanted; not necessarily to education). This would be true of this money, as well; it could mean it would go to law enforcement, etc. But it doesn’t mean it HAS to. This money is used like a petty cash by many elected officials, for whatever they need it for.

Also note page 23, 2nd column, under the heading State and Local Expenditure Estimate Assumptions: Revenue gains will accrue to existing accounts, the largest being the State General Fund, which may be used for any governmental purpose as appropriated by the Legislature.

I also asked Mr Smith about the 27% tax that’s mentioned in the ads, he explained that this is the 17% retail tax and the 10% distributors tax that are mentioned in the complete text [page 48, paragraph 2, Sec. 106, sections (1) and (2), (which only add up to 25%, so perhaps I heard that number wrong). He did state that these taxes would probably make the cost of the alcohol pretty close to the same it is now.

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