Commonwealth Journal

September 16, 2013

Alcohol in Somerset: Year 1 a success

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

 
September 13, 2012: Pro-alcohol sale activist Dave Weddle strolled into Main Street Deli on a warm afternoon and put his purchase on the counter. A humble can of beer passed hands between him and store owner Bill Hamilton, their heads turned to smile for a reporter’s camera.
Already a crowd had started to form; it would grow larger within a few short hours, as people lined up claim their own share of history.
It’s been one year since the first beer was sold in Somerset since the end of Prohibition. 
It was the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people — some for alcohol sales in Somerset, some against. Proponents said it would result in new economic opportunities — more jobs, more tax revenue — and safer streets with increased police funding. Opponents worried that it would result in a greater number of drunk drivers on the road, and an overall rise in alcohol-related social ills.
So is Somerset any better today for alcohol’s presence, one year later? Is it any worse? Is it any richer, or less safe?
 
The Economics
The impact of alcohol on Somerset’s financial well-being so far may be debatable. A “wet”-sider could point to the near omnipresence of beer in local stores as a sign of its popularity; a “dry”-sider could ask where all the new businesses are a year later.
One thing is for certain: The City of Somerset itself has made itself some serious cash.
From September 2012 through August 2013, alcohol sales in Somerset have totaled $11,706,553, according to information on www.cityofsomerset.com. From that, the city government has made $470,668 in regulatory fees. 
This has allowed the city a little extra financial wiggle room for various projects, with the alcohol money going to help pay for Somerset’s law enforcement.
“Sales are quite high,” said Nick Bradley, Somerset’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) administrator. “More than what we make in the fees, the overall impact you’re looking at is probably around $12 million. It’s made a big difference.”
So far, the city has given out about 35 licenses to businesses selling alcohol in some form — whether the five package liquor stores, the bars, or the more numerous restaurants and groceries or gas stations selling malt beverages. 
Of those, only a few are new businesses — three liquor retailers, and the bars, though a couple of those are additions to pre-existing entities. 
New restaurants are on the way, though — most notably, perhaps, Texas Roadhouse, the body of which is becoming more complete by the day on South U.S. 27. Bradley acknowledged it wouldn’t be here had Somerset voters not opted to go “wet” in June of 2012.
“It takes a little time for those to develop,” he said of Somerset drawing new business opportunities because of alcohol. “We expected it to take a while for more new developments to come in.
“Most of what we’re seeing are package sales,” he added. “By-the-drink sales comes along with new developments. They’re a very small percentage of overall sales on a monthly basis.”
Indeed, malt beverage sales have totaled $9,337,929 over the last year, with individual drink sales only reaching a little over half-a-million dollars and liquor package sales just shy of $1,800,000.
Still, the additions are prevalent — Bradley said all but a couple of convenience stores within the city limits sell beer — and that could mean additional money for businesses to hire more employees.
“For those that wanted (alcohol sales in their stores), it’s helped them,” said Bradley. “We’ve tried really hard to be strict and let it have little impact for those that didn’t want it. We take that part very seriously.”
And, he added, Bradley expects to see “continued interest” in new restaurants — if “little by little.”
 
The Roads
Technically, it’s true: DUI (driving under the influence) numbers reported by the Somerset Police Department have risen in the last year.
“Nobody expects DUI or alcohol-related arrests to go down after alcohol sales were votes in,” said Capt. Shannon Smith of SPD. “We knew that with the availability of alcohol, we would likely see an increase.”
However, Smith is quick to stress that alcohol sales alone can’t be blamed for that rise. Hidden inside the numbers are a myriad of factors that have led to the numerical rise — including one that has nothing to do with alcohol whatsoever.
“We can’t say that the increase we have seen is totally related to alcohol,” said Smith. “Overall, (being “wet”) has not complicated law enforcement for Somerset Police.”
From September 1, 2011 to Sept. 1, 2012, SPD made 172 arrests for impaired driving. For the same period of time 2012 to 2013 — the period during which alcohol has been legal in Somerset — police made 249 such arrests.
Specific numbers on other alcohol-related offenses weren’t available by this publication. However, Smith said police haven’t seen a “noticeable increase” on alcohol intoxication calls or arrests.
As for driving under the influence, Smith listed four factors that have contributed to the increase of a little under 80 arrests in a year’s time:
• Annexation of 50 new miles of roadway into the city provided a lot more territory for police to cover, raising the potential number of DUIs they could make over that of the areas they patrolled in the past.
Smith noted that Somerset roads covered about 25 miles before last year; with that number effectively tripled now, “that increases responsibility for traffic enforcement significantly,” he said.
• Last spring, SPD restructured its TAP (traffic alcohol program), making it easier for officers to work overtime for DUI enforcement. 
“That lead to an increase — not necessarily an increase in arrests, but an increase in the number of officers out there looking for impaired drivers,” said Smith.
• Between the beginning of May and the end of June of this year, local law enforcement conducted a series of eight sobriety checks — six actual checkpoints and two “saturation details” utilizing the help of other law enforcement agencies for a collective approach to combating impaired driving.
Some of these were within the traditional limits and some on the newly-annexed portions; all were on main roads, including North U.S. 27, Ky. 914, West Ky. 80, and others.
The end result, said Smith was 17 arrests for DUI over that eight-weekend period.
“We checked about 2,000 vehicles during those eight checkpoints,” said Smith. “Do the math on a rate of 17 out of 2,000.
“As a whole, we thought with the first summer with alcohol sales, with that amount of time and effort spent on our checkpoints, that our DUI numbers would have been a lot higher,” he added. “Could that be because we’ve made a strong presence and a lot of people know the stance Somerset Police is taking on impaired driving, or is the overall program of education and stressed importance of designated drivers working better than it ever has? It’s hard to tell.”
• Finally, what isn’t shown in stark numbers is what drivers are impaired by — and it’s not always alcohol. Smith said that it’s difficult to tell from the statistics who was taking what, but many impaired drivers on the roads are that way because of prescription drug abuse.
“It’s just as big a problem,” said Smith. “We do have a significant amount of DUIs because of driving (after taking) prescription pain medication. It’s just as big (a number) as those driving under alcohol impairment.”
Smith said that non-vehicular incidents, such as fights in bars, have been very little problem to the city over time as well.
“Initially, we had more frequent calls,” he said. “As everyone has learned the rules and regulations, calls to these establishments have been reduced significantly.
“We’ve done a number of walk-throughs at local bars, just from a presence standpoint,” he added. “Most of the time, we’d talk to the managers about the problems they were having. Usually, there were no problems going on.”
In all, the transition to a “wet” Somerset has gone smoother than police might have suspected, according to Smith.
“We’ve just not had very many complications as a result of legalized alcohol sales,” he said.