Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Western North Carolina counties have one by one voted to expand alcohol sales to not just be offered within the city limits, but to be sold countywide. Haywood County became the most recent WNC county to approve the measure, when voters took to the ballot in November to approve countywide alcohol sales.
Jackson County approved countywide alcohol sales in May 2012 by a comfortable margin, making it the third county in WNC to permit the sale of booze countywide at the time. In 2012, both Buncombe and Clay counties were already countywide and the same election that got it approved for Jackson, also made it possible for Henderson County.
In the eight westernmost counties, Cherokee, Clay, Jackson, Haywood, and Transylvania all serve alcohol countywide while Graham, Swain, and Macon do not. Statewide, 70 counties in North Carolina allow alcohol sales countywide, while 30 do not.
Before November, the last time time Haywood County considered alcohol sales countywide was 1952. In Macon County, a vote has never been considered to offer countywide alcohol sales.
For a county to permit the sale of alcohol outside of the city limits, commissioners must first vote whether or not to put the question on the ballot. In Haywood County last year, commissioners voted 3 to 1 to pass a resolution to put the referendum on the ballot, which ultimately leaves it up to voters to decide whether or not alcohol should be available countywide.
If there isn’t enough support from commissioners to put the question on the ballot, 35 percent, or just under 9,000 of the county’s registered voters could sign a petition to get the measure on the ballot for a full county vote.
Macon County Commissioners vary on whether a similar measure should be considered locally.
Macon County Board of Commission Vice-Chair Ronnie Beale said that due to the possible adverse implications, he would be against any measure that might lead to alcohol sales countywide.
“I would be opposed to countywide alcohol sales for a number of reasons,” said Beale. “From July 1 2014 -June 30 2015, the two ABC stores in Macon County had $4,131,000 in alcohol sales; this does not include beer and wine. The rule is you can multiply the ABC sales by 65 percent and get a pretty good total for alcohol sales in the county. For Macon County that would be a total of just over $6.8 million for this time period.The total for local distribution was $70,000, which would not even come close to covering the cost of the alcohol related calls to the Sheriffs Department. Alcohol is still the most abused drug in our and all communities. The underlying costs to the taxpayer are enormous, law enforcement, DSS, EMS, and other county agencies that are an expense to the county due to alcohol abuse. So when you look at countywide sales there many things to consider. The percentage of profit might look appealing, but I think when all is said and done if we are depending on alcohol to save us on our tax burden, in the long run it could possibly be more expensive. This subject will need a lot discussion and thought before a decision is made.”
Commissioner Gary Shields also noted he was apprehensive about the consideration, but thinks ultimately it should be left to voters.
“I do believe that people seeking alcohol beverages will find an avenue to purchase,” said Shields. “I personally have not evolved to the point of advocating for easier access. If Macon County would like to pursue this via a ballot, I would support a referendum. Even though an economic impact may occur, there are so many other problems that follow alcohol use that would involve law enforcement, mental health and family stability.”
Commission Chair Jim Tate said that the economic boost of countywide alcohol may be beneficial as a positive, but the negative of such a move should be considered as well.
“Personally, I can agree with the fact that county-wide alcohol sales would undoubtedly boost Macon’s economy, by opening multiple avenues of business opportunities; however, as a commissioner, I can’t help but consider the potential moral, safety, inspection and infrastructure issues that would come with it” said Tate The county would have to try and balance these issues with the heated debate that would definitely arise. From my personal perspective, I have to ask myself, is this the best direction for Macon County to take at this time? Perhaps, but as chairman, I would want the full support from the board before tackling a very controversial issue, and I do not believe that there is enough from the current board to even make it to a referendum, so the only other avenue for it to happen would be if 35 percent of the county’s registered voters initiated a petition requesting it.”
Local ABC boards in North Carolina are established and operated with no state funds. However, through the sale of spirituous liquor in ABC stores, approximately $1 billion in revenue is generated annually. Distributions benefit the state’s General Fund and the cities and counties where alcohol sales are allowed. Total revenue distributions during fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, amounted to $380,965,967.
When Jackson County approved alcohol sales countywide, 88 businesses permitted to sell alcohol in 2012. That number has since grown to 108, which means the county has seen an increase in the revenue generated from business permits.
In 2012, Jackson County collected $162,452.41 in ABC revenues. In the first year of countywide alcohol sales, that amount more than doubled to $391,416.28. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, Jackson County collected $444,542.97, an increase of 273.65 percent in ABC revenues going into the county’s budget. In addition to countywide alcohol sales, Jackson County operates two ABC stores.
Macon County’s ABC revenues have decreased since 2010. In 2010, ABC revenues contributed $11,767.08 to the county’s budget. For the 2015-16 fiscal year, ABC revenues totaled $11,366.79
Alcohol related crimes
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office software has the ability to filter arrests based on incidents that involve drugs or alcohol. While the reports don’t distinguish between drugs or alcohol, as an indicator of whether or not the crime rate has increased in correlation with the decision to sale alcohol countywide, the reports have actually decreased since 2010.
In 2010, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office recorded 456 incidents involving drugs or alcohol. As of Dec. 20, 2016, the department has recorded 367. In 2012, the year the referendum was approved, the sheriff’s office recorded 356; 396 in 2013; 393 in 2014; and 363 in 2015.
Macon County had 703 DWI arrests in 2014, and saw a one percent increase in drug and alcohol related arrests from 2013 to 2014.