New election year may bring controversy

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
A new election year will give Carter County residents an opportunity to raise their local option sales tax.
The coming election year could also bring another controversial subject to the county's general election ballot in August: a referendum asking Elizabethton citizens to approve or deny liquor-by-the-drink.
To place a liquor-by-the-drink referendum on the ballot, state law requires a petition bearing the signature of at least 10 percent of the total number of registered voters in the county or municipality who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
Countywide, 16,400 Carter County citizens voted in the 2002 gubernatorial election, according to numbers from the Carter County Election Commission office. Of that number, 3,112 voters resided within Elizabethton city limits. If a petition for referendum were initiated for the city of Elizabethton only, the petition would need only 10 percent of those voters from Elizabethton -- roughly 311 citizens -- to bring the referendum to the Aug. 5 county general election ballot, according to state law. The petition must be submitted to the election commission no later than 45 days before the general election date, according to state law.
An effort to place the referendum on the ballot in 2002 failed with fewer than 10 legitimate signatures being turned into the Election Commission office.
Once a referendum is passed, the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission office in Nashville must receive certified election results before the commission officials can release information for a liquor-by-the-drink application. The ABC has no jurisdiction over the serving of beer or the issuance of beer permits. The Elizabethton Beverage Board regulates matters regarding beer sales at licensed establishments in the city.
The Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues liquor licenses for restaurants and package stores. Restaurants pony up an annual fee ranging from $600 to $1,000 -- depending on their seating capacity -- to obtain a liquor-by-the-drink license from the commission.
Jonesborough residents passed a referendum to permit restaurants to serve liquor by the drink in the Nov. 5, 2002 election with a slim margin of 723 for to 703 against. The passage came after Jonesborough voters had rejected the referendum three times during the past 10 years.
Johnson City voters approved the existence of liquor stores, or package stores, by referendum in 1967. Voters approved liquor-by-the-drink in 1980. The referendum was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which effectively ratified the referendum in favor of Johnson City in 1982.
Despite popular belief, municipal governments or legislative bodies cannot enact an ordinance granting liquor sales. A city or county's citizens must submit the petition to their county's election commission requesting a referendum for support of liquor sales be placed on the next city or county election ballot.
Passing a liquor-by-the-drink referendum does not have to extend to package stores. A referendum may be worded specifically to include only liquor-by-the-drink restaurants but exclude the creation of liquor stores.