Augusta commissioners favor alcohol sales vote

Commissioners open to election

Although the earliest it could reach voters is Nov. 8, most Augusta Commission members already are receptive to putting the question of Sunday retail alcohol sales before them.

"Absolutely; I think it's each individual's right to be able to decide," Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said.

Senate Bill 10, approved by the Georgia House and Senate, awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature for local governments to place the question on a ballot for voters.

In Augusta, the question will be whether retailers may sell beer, wine and distilled spirits on Sundays between 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

"Put it before the voters, and let them decide," District 4 Commissioner Joe Jackson said.

Commissioners Jerry Brigham, Matt Aitken, Corey Johnson and Grady Smith also said they would vote to put the question on a ballot.

"There will be varied opinions about it, but we're all grown people and each should make his own decision about what's right or wrong," Smith said. "Let's do what the majority wants to do. That's how this country was set up." Said Johnson: "I'm not lobbying for it, but it's just an opportunity to deal with some of the deficits, especially at the state level."

Said Aitken: "When you look at the deficits that we and other communities face, this may be a way to fund them."

Not every commissioner reached said he had made up his mind. Super District 9 Commissioner J.R. Hatney, who routinely abstains from voting on alcohol license applications, said, "From my perspective, grocery stores shouldn't be allowed to sell alcohol, because children go in there."

Still, asked whether Augusta voters should choose whether retailers may sell alcohol on Sundays, Hatney said, "With things of that magnitude, voters should be given the opportunity to decide."

District 8 Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he had not reached a decision.

If the measure passes in Augusta, at least 400 businesses would have the option to be open and sell alcohol. Licensing and Inspections Director Rob Sherman said 200 retailers now hold licenses to sell package beer, 169 to sell wine and 34 to sell liquor.

The only place to purchase an alcoholic beverage on Sundays in Augusta is in a restaurant, and 102 restaurants hold the $1,210 Sunday sales license, he said.

Consumers may drive to Aiken, which holds a special South Carolina permit allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell alcohol on Sunday.

Despite the potential for added sales, some Augusta retailers aren't thrilled with the prospect of being open.

"To me, Sunday is like a family day," said Phillip Song, the owner of Superstar Wine & Spirits on Deans Bridge Road. "I'd like to keep it that way."

Still, if neighboring package stores remain open, Song said, he would be forced to do the same. He and the approximately 16 members of the Augusta-based Korean Liquor Association will take up the issue at their next meeting.

During 2011, which is not an election year, Richmond County can't schedule an election on a standalone ballot question until Nov. 8, said Travis Doss, the Board of Elections' assistant director.

After Nov. 8, the next opportunity will be during the Presidential Preference Primary in February or March, Doss said.

The cost to taxpayers to open Augusta-Richmond County's 52 polling places is at least $80,000, Elections Director Lynn Bailey said.

"I don't think we should spend $80,000 to have an alcohol sales referendum," said Brigham, who suggested placing the vote with next year's presidential primary.