City liquor petition filed

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  A famously dry community may be ready to get its feet, and its whistle, wet.
  Representatives of the Carter County Election Commission office confirmed they received a petition on Tuesday afternoon bearing 550 names and requesting a referendum on liquor-by-the-drink be placed on the Nov. 2 election ballot.
  For a petition to make it as a referendum, election officers must verify a minimum of 316 names - 10 percent of city residents who voted in the 2002 gubernatorial election - and signatures as registered city voters. The referendum would ask city residents to cast a "for" or "against" vote for the sale of mixed drinks at on-premise locations in Elizabethton.
   City resident Sam Barker who spearheaded the petition said the ability to attract name restaurants could serve as an economic catalyst for the town.
  "We want this to add to the quality of life and for economic development," Barker said. "This is about improving the growth of the town."
  Barker said the petition submitted Tuesday only requests a referendum for the sale of mixed drinks at on-site locations such as restaurants. He said the petition does not request a referendum for package stores or off-premises sales of liquor.
  The filing of the petition alone is a landmark moment in the city's history.
   Northeast Tennessee cities of Bristol, Greeneville, Kingsport, and Johnson City as well as the town of Jonesborough permit liquor-by-the-drink within their corporate limits. Elizabethton is the largest city in the 8-county region where on-premises sales of mixed drinks are prohibited.
  The deadline to file a petition requesting a referendum on the November ballot is Friday. The Nov. 2 election ballot must be prepared with all elected offices and referendums listed by Sept. 17.
  The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues licenses to restaurants to sell mixed drinks as well as licensing the restaurant employees who serve alcoholic beverages. If sales for consumption on the premises are approved through referendum in the county or municipality, qualified entities may apply to the commission for a permit to sell wine and spirits.
   The state collects a tax of 15 percent on the gross sales of all alcoholic beverages and wine for consumption on the premises for establishments holding a license to serve mixed drinks. A municipal government can levy a privilege tax separate from any other taxing authority on establishments selling mixed drinks within its corporate limits according to state law.
  Johnson City residents voted to approve the sale of mixed drinks at establishments when the measure was put to a citywide referendum in 1980. The referendum was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which effectively ratified the referendum in favor of Johnson City in 1982.
   Chain restaurants serving mixed drinks including Texas Roadhouse, Cheddar's, and Carraba's have opened in Johnson City within the past year while other upscale chain restaurants such as Johnny Carino's are currently under construction.
  In its projected 2005 fiscal year budget, the city of Johnson City estimates revenues of $380,000 earned through the mixed drink tax. The city's local option sales tax is expected to raise $15 million during the next fiscal year.
  The Elizabethton-Carter County Economic Development Commission has endorsed a liquor-by-the-drink referendum.