By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
Would Somerset’s state legislators be willing to look into a change in alcohol laws?
Maybe ... maybe not.
As the city prepares to try and hash out some kind of arrangement with the Kentucky Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) over the number of package liquor licenses the town can receive — if necessary, by legal action — the question of whether or not distribution of “quota licenses” is really the best practice.
State Rep. Tommy Turner told the Common-wealth Journal that’s not a law change he would want to tweak.
“My thought is, this is not something I want to deal with,” he said.
Sen. Chris Girdler, who recently assumed the seat formerly held by Vernie McGaha in representing Pulaski County in Frankfort, can’t say for sure yet until he examines the issue further.
“I’m willing to look at all possibilities,” he told the Commonwealth Journal.
According to state law, Retail Liquor Package licenses (primarily applying to liquor stores selling distilled spirits and wine) and Retail Liquor Drink (primarily applying to bars and nightclubs) are quota licenses, meaning only a specific number of them can be allowed by a city.
The state ABC office makes that determination and based on Somerset’s size and market factors, state alcohol officials decided that the city which went “wet” last June could have five liquor store licenses and five bar licenses apiece.
Licenses to sell drinks by the glass in a restaurant environment or beer in stores are not bound by these limitations.
However, the ABC also sorted through the 17 applicants for the Retail Liquor Package license and selected the five businesses to receive one — meaning the state agency both selects how many such licenses a town gets and who should get them, as per Kentucky law.
Somerset Mayor Girdler has taken issue with the way his town was dealt with by Kentucky ABC in this process. Two national drug store chains and three smaller businesses were awarded the licenses. High-volume liquor retailer Liquor World was not ... and Girdler has told the Commonwealth Journal that the decision would cost the city a projected annual $150,000 in alcohol-based fee revenue.
Girdler has told the Commonwealth Journal that the state didn’t consider the city’s economic needs in making their decisions, or spend sufficient time discussing those specifics with Somerset officials before making the licensing decisions.
“We still come back to the same conclusion: that the state did not achieve the greatest economic growth either in dollar investment or number of jobs, or meet any of our community objectives regarding economic growth,” said Girdler last week “... We looked at additional data to see if there was any reason the state ABC might have that we didn’t have (for choosing the license applicants as they did) and we can’t come up with any logical reason for the decision they made.”
Girdler felt that Somerset — with a population of just over 11,000 as of the 2010 census but the seat and commercial hub of a county of more than 63,000, and even for surrounding counties — can reasonably support at least three or four more liquor stores. Moreover, he feels that it’s best left a matter for the free market to sort out — rather than letting government officials choose how many stores a community can have, let the ones that can survive do so, and the ones that can’t will close.
“I think we can handle three or four more (stores that sell liquor),” said Girdler, “and let the private market determine who will provide the best service.”
So would state legislators consider changing that law to put more power in the hands of the individual communities rather than Kentucky ABC?
Turner says the process for dealing with alcohol stores is already in place — and he’s in no rush to change it, even to help out a town like Somerset, which he represents.
“Let it play out,” he said. “They have a process. No matter what kind of process it is, there’s going to be somebody who’s unhappy.
Even if Girdler were to specifically request help from representative for Pulaski and Laurel Counties, Turner said he’s “not interested” in reexamining the law and said he “doesn’t see why it would be something” the state legislature would want to deal with.
“Nobody questioned the process until it didn’t work out the way they wanted it to,” he said. “We’ve got too many issues that are more important than that to deal with.”
Girdler — who beat out several other candidates in last May’s Primary Election to claim the State Senate seat representing Pulaski, Adair, Casey and Russell Counties — was more receptive to the issue, but made no promises.
“As with any elected issue or any constituent, I’m always happy to look into it and investigate what the situation currently is and what our options are moving into the future,” said Girdler when asked if he would consider reexamining state alcohol licensing policy if approached by Somerset city officials.
Girdler added that “without question, local impact should be something considered” by Kentucky ABC when choosing who gets alcohol licenses.
“There’s a high level of importance and value put on local impact,” he said. “I’m willing to look at all possibilities, but I will want to look at (the issue) and study it further.”
Girdler, a Pulaski native who also serves as District Director for Congressman Hal Rogers, was pleased with the way the city has dealt with the logistics of its newly “wet” status so far.
“I believe that the City of Somerset and (local ABC administrator) Nick Bradley ... have handled this with tremendous professionalism, and I applaud them for all their efforts.”