by Chris Harris
Your move, Burnside.
The city that first introduced a “dry” Pulaski County to legal alcohol sales almost a decade ago will decide today if they’re going to try to play catch-up with larger northern neighbor Somerset.
Burnside voters will go to the polls today to vote on a referendum that would allow the city to go “wet,” and sell beer and distilled spirits in a retail setting.
Currently, the city only allows the sale of alcoholic beverages by the drink in restaurants.
However, even that was a drastic change for Pulaski County, which had gone generations without any kind of legal alcohol sales at all.
Although a couple of small eastern Pulaski wineries had been granted on-site sale of the products by individual precinct votes, every municipality in the county had remained under the conditions of Prohibition until May of 2004, when Burnside voted to go “moist” by a margin on 219-128. Until that point, every major “wet”/“dry” election — whether for Somerset or the county as a whole — had gone the other way.
Burnside’s support of legal alcohol sales was affirmed in August of 2007, when it was brought to the ballot again by alcohol opponents in an attempt to have the decision reversed. Instead, voters favored drink sales by an even greater margin that time — 227 for to 104 against.
And for eight years, Burnside was the only town in Pulaski County to have alcohol. However, in June of 2012, Somerset voters historically changed that, with their own option election that swung the “wet” way.
That June, Somerset residents choice to allow full alcohol capabilities — not just in restaurants, but in retail stores and bars — by a count of 2,176 for to 1,464 against.
This put Burnside in a tricky situation. Instead of the place “the only town on Lake Cumberland” had carved out for itself as the sole destination to go in Pulaski for an after-work drink, now they would be competing with Somerset for just one more area of business — with the commercial odds almost always weighted in the more heavily-populated Somerset’s favor.
Burnside actually started laying the groundwork for today’s vote in February of 2012 when the city first considered moving up to fourth-class status. As a fifth-class city, Burnside couldn’t legally allow more than individual drink sales, but going to fourth-class would give the city more options.
Alcohol opponents could see this as well, and lodged their complaints. Pastor Billy Miller of Jordan Baptist Church in Burnside — an outspoken local opponent of alcohol sales in the community —visited the meeting of the Burnside City Council at that time to voice his concerns about the potential for more booze in Burnside.
Mayor Ron Jones stated at the time that the classification move — which took effect earlier this year — was not done primarily for alcohol reasons. On Monday, the eve of the election, he still maintains that’s the case.
“We needed fourth-class to protect us and get us a little better status, an opportunity to get some growth,” said Jones. “My understanding is everybody in the state would like to be a fourth-class city. You just get more bang for the buck.”
That being said, Jones has taken a unique approach in directly lobbying for voters to make his city “wet.” It’s been commonplace for political leaders to say they’d leave it up to the discretion of the voters, but Jones has made it clear that the extra revenue from alcohol sales would be a great financial help to Burnside.
“It’s going to benefit us greatly,” he said. “I don’t guess we’ve had a property tax raise in 15 years. Every year, we get 10 to 12 people asking for homestead exemptions. That over $350,000 a year that we lose as a tax base.
“The cost of gas, chemicals, all that keeps going up,” he added. “Somebody has got to pay the bills.”
Jones also noted that instead of going to Somerset, Burnside citizens would be able to keep their dollars in the community.
“I don’t think we’ll see anywhere near the revenue Somerset has got, but if we can see a little bit of that, it would be wonderful for us,” said Jones, who said that the extra money would allow the city to hire more police officers and provide better coverage for citizens.
Other than Jones, it’s been an atypically quiet “wet”/“dry” battle. While Somerset saw an active advertising campaign by Dave Weddle and his group Progress Somerset and alcohol opponents like David Carr and Ed Amundson placed their advertisements in both the media and in individual yards, this option election has been very much the opposite.
For one thing, nobody has even publicly stepped forward to claim responsibility for any of the efforts. The petition to get the question “Are you in favor of the sale of alcoholic beverages in the City of Burnside?” on the ballot was dropped off at the county clerk Ralph Troxtell’s office by an election officer Mark Vaught, but neither Vaught nor Troxtell who requested the petition be delivered.
Campaigning has been slow as well — the Commonwealth Journal saw an anti-alcohol ad published last week, but while the ad says it was “paid for” by Mike Todd, the person who wanted the ad run remains in doubt as well.
As for Miller, while he remains opposed to alcohol sales, he has not been the visible presence for a “no” vote that he was in the past.
“We’ve made our statements and gone through the community and told people our position on this,” said Miller. “We stand firm on where we area. People will just vote and be accountable.”
Miller said that the reason he’s opposed to alcohol sales is because he believes it “doesn’t bring anything but pain and agony,” despite the economic factors stated by people like Jones.
“I realize it brings (revenue), but in the end, it’s not only destructive to the body but the soul as well,” he said. “ ... We feel that if one life may be taken, the sale of alcohol anywhere in this county is not worth over all the revenue ten times over. We don’t think the revenue is worth one innocent person that may be affected by it.”
That said, when asked if he felt like the alcohol Burnside currently has contributes to a less safe environment, Miller said, “There have been some incidents where there have been DUIs, situations where fatalities have happened. Not to what effect that’s been because of local alcohol sales, I can’t answer that ... I just know the history of alcohol and the issues that it brings.”
A total of 523 registered voters will be eligible to vote in today’s election. Only three are in the Nancy precinct (at Lee’s Ford Marina), and they will be voting in Troxtell’s office at the Pulaski County Courthouse in downtown Somerset.
The other Burnside precinct — Burnside City, North Burnside City, East Burnside County and South Burnside County — will all be at the Burnside Fire Station on East French Street. Polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Troxtell said that there has been a low return so far in absentee voting and thus he expects this to be a fairly quiet election day.
“I’m expecting a low turnout,” he said. “There’s just not been a lot of activity.”