Wet, Dry or Damp County? Liquor by the Drink Seems Moot Point at Dade County Commission Meeting

If the avalanche of yes votes on the liquor by the drink referendum on last month's ballot is any indication, Dade County is full of people clamoring thirstily for adult beverages. Meanwhile, the local government's decision to stand quietly by and let the voters decide the question signals the Dade County Commission's willingness to fatten the public coffers with bar tab sales taxes.

What is missing from this equation? In a word, the bartender.

At their regular monthly meeting on Dec. 1, Dade County commissioners might have seemed to be dragging their feet on drafting requirements for alcoholic beverage licenses. The county attorney, Robin Rogers, said he had asked them to submit suggestions on what they considered reasonable restrictions. District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff said there was no hurry. "We need to take our time," he said. "We need to get it right."

District 1's Mitchell Smith pointed out that the way the referendum language was constructed, the commissioners were allowed, "but not limited to," the issuance of liquor licenses to establishments at the county's highway exit areas, presumably making it possible to license establishments in the county at large. And Robin Rogers reminded the commissioners that the city of Trenton in its own beer-and-wine ordinance had first included restrictions as to proximity to churches, et cetera, and then been obliged to take them back out.

But outside this general species of discussion no action was taken, and what shortly became evident is that the commissioners feel no pressure from restaurateurs or anybody else to take any.

District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman asked about the Canyon Grill, the award-winning restaurant atop Lookout, for whose sake the original straw-poll question about liquor by the drink that led to the referendum was put on a past year's Democratic Party ballot. Allan Bradford, in whose District 4 the restaurant is situated, said he didn't know if the Canyon Grill was even interested in selling alcohol.

Bradford this week reported he'd spoken with Johnny Holland, owner of the Canyon Grill, and learned that Holland in fact had no intention of selling booze. "He thinks it might actually harm his business, and above all, he doesn't want to do all the paperwork," said Bradford. "All his customers seem to be happy the way it is."

"The way it is" means brown-bagging: At the Canyon Grill, customers are allowed to bring in their own bottles of wine to accompany the restaurant's upmarket entrees. That works for Holland, who Bradford says is not even sure he has enough room at the restaurant to add a bar, and apparently it's also jake with the county government, as the Canyon Grill has been around 20-plus years now operating in this fashion.

Commissioner Bradford said Chris Stone, the owner of the ex-art gallery on Scenic Highway who intends to open a pizza restaurant in it, does intend to serve beer and would like a license to sell it--but that he is no hurry. Stone has no target opening date and prefers to stay out of the discussion entirely at this point, said Bradford. Otherwise, said Bradford, no one's said anything to him about the question at all.

So is Dade a wet county in name only? The Planet will follow developments as they arise.

No action besides discussion was taken, either, on the so-called "D-TIP," the proposed county-specific transportation special-purpose local option sales tax of up to 1 cent to be used for projects such as roads, sidewalks or the new Trenton-north exit the county has yearned after for years. "We can use it as a tool to lower taxes for our landowners," said Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley.

Rumley explained after the meeting that the D-Tip can only be adopted by another referendum, which probably can't happen before at least 2018. The reason he brings it up at every meeting, he said, is to inform voters what the D-Tip is and what it can do for the county. "People need to know what it is," he said.

And speaking of no-action items, the commissioners at the Dec. 1 meeting took up as they often do passing a new anti-methadone-clinic ordinance. In 2011, the commission had tried to block the opening of Tristate Treatment Center in Wildwood with such an ordinance, which it quietly withdrew later when it ran afoul of the American with Disabilities Act as well as local sensibilities as to zoning restrictions.

But now, with the atmosphere changed in Atlanta--Georgia has passed a temporary moratorium against new methadone clinics--the idea of a new ordinance recurs at each commission meeting. "It's getting out of hand," said Rumley, referring to the number of treatment centers.

County Attorney Rogers said he'd spoken with Georgia Senator Renee Unterman about Dade's proposed anti-methadone ordinance and wished to delay presenting the commission with a draft until he was sure he'd come up with something that didn't contradict the state's version.

Commissioner Smith asked if the county could specify that any methadone clinics in Dade must have among its patients a certain percentage of local residents. "It's certainly something to look at," replied the attorney.

Methadone clinics use controlled doses of the drug methadone to wean patients from their increasingly rampant addiction to opioids, many of them legal prescription pain pills.

In other business, County Clerk Don Townsend announced a Dec. 15 meeting at 10 a.m. ins the Commission Room of the Administrative Building regarding the hotel/motel tax Dade is currently trying to adopt. Two speakers who Townsend says "wrote the book" on accommodation taxes will be on hand to help Dade with question.

On December 13, also at 10 a.m. and also in the Admin Building, the final stakeholders' meeting on the Trenton/Dade County Comprehensive 10-year plan will be held. Townsend said the plan, which has been months in the making, should be ready to be presented in March and adopted in April or May. Commissioner Goff added that this should show dubious county residents that "We do have a plan, but most of it's slow."

At the forefront in the commissioners' monthly addresses to the public were gratitude to and praise of the Georgia Forestry Commission and the county's volunteer fire deparments for their work through October and November battling the wildfires that have swept Dade. "The Forestry Service did a great job but they would have been overwhelmed if it hadn't been for the volunteers," said Commissioner Smith.

Beginning with the disclaimer, "I am a firm believer in local banking," County Clerk Townsend asked for and received authority to transfer the county's money out of local banks and into financial institutions that might pay better interest rates. Townsend explained that Dade didn't usually have a lot to invest but had recently received a sizeable refund from its insurer, and that the county's ultimate goal was to have $1.5 million in its reserve funds.

After a presentation with Public Defender David Dunn, the commission agreed to renew its $97,929 contract with Dunn's office for indigent defense. It also renewed its contract with Transit Alliance Group and grant arrangement with the state and federal governments for the county's mass transportation program; extended the county right of way on Charlotte Drive, subject to landowners' agreement; approved $15,000 for engineering work at Lookout Lake Dam; and okayed $35,800 for continued monitoring of groundwater affected by the county's long-closed landfill. This is a $900 increase over last year but Commissioner Rumley assured all that he and the commission were working on getting this requirement behind them.

As detailed in an earlier Planet article, the commission agreed to pay almost $100,000--$98,949.77, to be precise--in SPLOST funds for a water line to the new Vanguard plant.

"It was a whole team effort getting the Vanguard thing to happen," said Nathan Wooten, chairman of the Dade Industrial Authority (IDA), reporting to the commission. IDA was instrumental in bringing the tractor trailer manufacturer to the county, and in soliciting fiscal contributions toward that end.

The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. the third Thursday of every month.

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