Originally created 04/02/02

Vote expected on bar hours



Some Augusta officials would like to extend the hours when alcohol sales are permitted at downtown bars and restaurants.

Others have said they cannot support longer hours because it would increase the costs of citywide law enforcement.

And at least one city commissioner says he's in favor of a compromise - lengthening the hours of operation for food and beverage businesses but keeping the 2 a.m. alcohol cutoff during the week.

A subcommittee of the Augusta Commission studying the hours of city alcohol sales is scheduled to meet at 12:30 p.m. today, and the panel's chairman has said he hopes to take a vote that would move the matter forward.

But which way that vote will go is anybody's guess.

"We're just going to play it by ear," subcommittee Chairman Ulmer Bridges said.

The topic of alcohol sales has been simmering since January, when the city's budget was in limbo and Augusta commissioners were looking for new and innovative forms of revenue.

Currently, alcohol sales must be cut off at 2 a.m. during the week, and bars must close their doors by 2:30 a.m.

Officials have contemplated giving bars and restaurants 1 1/2 more hours to sell alcohol Monday through Friday. Hours would remain the same Saturdays, when they must close by 2 a.m.

"I would like to see (extended hours) done in a very limited area, such as the downtown district," subcommittee member Andy Cheek said.

A small area would be easier to control, Mr. Cheek said.

The proposal that commissioners have studied would extend the hours during which alcohol can be sold from 2 a.m. to 3:30, and the businesses would have to close their doors by 4 a.m.

Bar owners contend that the increased hours would generate additional excise tax revenue for the city.

A study of city alcohol sales, conducted by the Department of License and Inspection, showed that the longer hours would provide only minimal revenue increases - between $5,200 and $8,600 annually.

Although the study is only a "very rough" estimate by city standards, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office has opposed the plan, saying the cost of increased public safety would outweigh the revenue generated.

"I've not had many calls in favor of it," subcommittee member Tommy Boyles said. He supports allowing bar owners more time to keep their doors open - perhaps another half-hour - as long as no alcohol is sold.

"I would like to see a compromise," he said.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.