Despite the fact that the city’s Planning and Development Department is proposing some pretty significant changes to Augusta’s alcohol licenses, including a 10 percent fee increase, not one single local business owner seems to care.
Or at least that’s the impression the city is getting considering the fact that no one has bothered to attend the three public hearings on the proposed changes to voice his or her concerns.
In fact, even though there has been several news stories featuring the proposed changes in both print and on television, not a single business owner attended this week’s Public Services Committee meeting with Augusta commissioners to consider the proposal.
“We had the three public hearings,” said Rob Sherman, deputy director of the city’s development division. “No one showed up except a couple people from the media.”
Sherman said the public hearings were advertised in the newspaper and there was notice also given on the city’s website, but no one attended the hearings in July.
Therefore, the department went forward in presenting the changes to the alcohol licenses to commissioners.
The ordinance changes propose raising alcohol fees by 10 percent, creating a new kind of hybrid restaurant designation and allowing bars to be open on a Sunday that falls on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
The proposed changes to the ordinance would also allow liquor stores to sell on every holiday except Christmas.
“The state code says that a liquor store can’t sell on Christmas, but it gives the local governments the authority to decide on any other holiday,” Sherman said. “Right now, our ordinance includes Thanksgiving. Over the years, we’ve had liquor stores call and ask whether they can sell on Thanksgiving Day.”
Therefore, the department decided to allow alcohol sales at liquor stores on Thanksgiving.
One ordinance change, which was inspired by regulations in Savannah, is the creation of the hybrid restaurant designation, which would allow a restaurant to change its status, transitioning from an all-ages restaurant into a 21-and-over club after 9 p.m.
The proposal would also allow qualified restaurants that received the “hybrid privilege license” to then stay open to either 2:30 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the day of the week.
There is also a proposed 10 percent fee increase for alcohol licenses, Sherman said.
“The last time we increased the fees was in October 2011,” he said, adding that the fees in Richmond County are on the “higher end” compared to other cities across the state. “We are below the Atlanta area and Gwinnett (County), but our recommendation is you increase the fees by 10 percent. That would generate approximately $144,000.”
While the commissioners said they were open to considering the proposed changes, many questioned why there hasn’t been more communication with local bar owners.
“We have every bar owner and every restaurant in our database,” Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said. “Have we reached out to them?”
Sherman said the department didn’t call the bars or restaurant owners personally, but they did advertise the public meetings.
Even though no one attended the public hearings, Guilfoyle said some commissioners had received phone calls from business owners complaining about the changes.
“It would bother me to have three public hearings and nobody showed up,” Guilfoyle said. “The first one, I would be scratching my head. The second one, I would be questioning myself. The third one, I’d know I had done something wrong… We do need public input.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said he was mainly concerned about the proposed 10 percent increase.
“I’m in support of what you are doing,” Williams told Sherman. “I didn’t like the 10 percent part, but if you haven’t had anybody respond to that, then I’m probably worried about the wrong thing.”
After all, Williams said if the business owners were truly concerned, someone would have shown up to the meetings.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson suggested that the department send out letters to each of the businesses notifying them of the proposed changes. Guilfoyle suggested that the department hold a town hall meeting.
As the commissioners continued to offer more suggestions on how to reach the business owners, Williams said he was baffled by the entire conversation.
“I don’t understand what we are doing. This don’t make good sense to me,” Williams said, explaining that the department tried to hold three public hearing about the matter and no one showed up.
Williams said if the business owners cared, they would attend the public hearings.
“It is not a participant at the bar that we are trying to get in here. He is the bar owner,” Williams said, adding that these bar owners are businessmen and women. “Y’all are acting like we are talking to some drunk.”
If the business owners don’t care enough to show up, then the commissioners shouldn’t beg people to comment on the proposed changes, Williams said.
“Nobody showed up,” Williams said. “Now, y’all are trying to get somebody to show up. And y’all can’t face them when they come in here. You don’t want to talk to them.”
Johnson said it wouldn’t hurt to notify the owners of the changes by mail.
“If they decide to toss it and not read it, then that’s on them,” Johnson said, adding that at least the city tried to notify them. “That way they can’t come before this commission and say, ‘Y’all did this and we didn’t know anything about it.’”
Sherman said he would be happy to send those notifications out, but it would cost the county approximately $4,000.
At that point, Williams simply started laughing at his fellow commissioners.
“That’s crazy,” Williams said, jokingly telling Sherman to go ahead and send out the notices. “They aren’t worried about money. Go ahead and spend it. They don’t care.”
Guilfoyle, who had just gotten finished arguing against a property tax increase this year, said he couldn’t understand why it would cost the city $4,000 when it is “35 cents a stamp.”
Williams again started chuckling.
“You mean, a 44-cent stamp,” Williams said.
Larry Harris, a manager in Richmond County’s licensing division, explained the $4,000 would include not only the mailing expenses, but the cost of putting together a packet and the labor of taking an employee off his or her regular duties.
Augusta Commission Grady Smith suggested the department email the businesses
to notify them of the changes.
Sherman said the department had about 30 percent of all the businesses’ email addresses.
“That is about as cheap as you can get,” Smith said, referring to sending emails.
Commissioners agreed to send as many emails as possible to notify the public that the full commission will discuss the proposal next Tuesday, Sept. 2, at their regular meeting at 2 p.m.
The full list of the proposed changes can be found at augustaga.gov.