Liquor-by-the-drink brings revenue to area cities

By Julie Fann
star staff

Will Elizabethton residents eventually vote to bring liquor-by-the-drink to their city? Questions surrounding the issue abound. 1988 was the last year the city held a liquor-by-the-drink referendum on an election ballot. That year, 1,880 citizens voted for liquor-by-the-drink, while 2,521 voted against it. "People think that if we have liquor-by-the-drink that will attract more business to the city, but there isn't a guarantee that will happen," said Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl.
   According to Johnson City officials, liquor-by-the-drink was approved in Johnson City by a narrow margin of just six votes in 1981. City Manager Mike West said that the city has seen a large increase in revenue after liquor-by-the-drink was approved, and according to Johnson City Police Chief Ron Street, DUI arrests have dropped since 1992. "We have a yearly report that indicates that DUI arrests have dropped, but I think that's due more to the fact that DUI laws in the state of Tennessee have become tighter than it has anything to do with having liquor-by-the-drink," he said.
   Kingsport City Manager Dave Light said that liquor-by-the-drink was passed in that city in 1982 or 1983. "It has been a good revenue strain; we've seen an increase in business in the city, restaurants, and that sort of thing," he said.
   Bristol City Manager Tony Massey said that the city of Bristol has also had liquor-by-the-drink since 1982. However, he said that Bristol city residents tend to go across the state line into Virginia to buy liquor because the tax rate is lower there. Bristol Police Chief Eddie Wampler said there has been no noticeable increase in drunk driving accidents in the city, but that drunk driving arrests have decreased since 1992. "We had 231 DUI arrests in 2000; 10 years ago, in 1992, we had 547 DUI arrests," he said. Wampler, like Street, also attributed more stringent state laws surrounding DUI as the reason for the decrease.
   According to Tennessee law, to get a liquor-by-the-drink referendum on an election ballot, a petition must be signed by 10 percent or more of the registered voters who voted for governor in the last election in a city or county. The petition must be addressed to the local County Election Commission office. If an election is held at a time other than the November general election, the petition must be presented to the Election Commission not less than 45 days before the election.
   Liquor-by-the-drink referendums can be held regardless of whether the county or city has previously held a referendum and approved packaged liquor stores. Also, two referendums can be held simultaneously.
   The Highway Safety Research Center reports that increased availability of alcohol tends to result in a larger number of alcohol-related accidents. After legislative action in 1978 made liquor-by-the-drink legal in North Carolina, the number of places where alcohol could be purchased increased by 250 percent. As a result, alcohol-related crashes increased by about 20 percent in those counties that opted for liquor-by-the-drink. However, the HSRC said that it is still not proven that if communities allow the sale of liquor, alcohol-related accidents will rise.
   Carter County Executive Truman Clark said that he had no comment concerning a liquor-by-the-drink referendum in Elizabethton, and Carter County Democratic Party Chairman John Fetzer said he wouldn't support liquor-by-the-drink. "I don't think we need it here. It takes more money to bring it in and take care of it once you get it. It causes a lot of people to get killed. I don't feel like it's something our people want here," he said.
   The city of Thomasville, a small community in Davidson County near Nashville, approved liquor-by-the-drink in 1999 by 54 percent. Ken Younts, treasurer and high school coordinator for the Libertarian Party of Davidson County, said that liquor-by-the-drink is a free enterprise issue, not an alcohol issue. "In a country that adheres to free market principles, it is confusing why referendums take place at all," he said.
   Younts and other members of the Libertarian Party of Davidson County feel that the law of supply and demand should dictate if restaurants should serve alcohol. "Voting yes (to liquor-by-the-drink) will have no impact on drunk driving. Those who want to drink will. What we need to do is make sure our streets are as safe as possible by strictly enforcing the laws we already have. As far as the morality of drinking, that is solely an individual choice, not something you should be voting on," he said.