On Tuesday dozens of local small business owners attended an Atlanta City Council meeting to voice their dismay over a proposed ordinance that would effectively triple the cost of their alcohol permits. Ordinance 17-O-1523, put forward by the council’s finance committee at the behest of Mayor Kasim Reed, would seek to refill the city’s depleted coffers in order “to cover the cost of regulating the sale of alcohol for the protection of the public.”

Restaurant and bar owners, unsurprisingly, were vocal in their opposition.  Said Drew Van Leuvan, co-owner of Buckhead’s Seven Lamps, “Government attempting to raise a liquor license fee 300 percent is outrageous and not sustainable for small    businesses.  If Atlanta wants to be considered a worldly city, you can’t tax the doers and creators to the point where they leave the city and big box business takes over. Not smart business.”

Karen Bremer, chairman of the Georgia Restaurant Association, the state’s largest advocacy group for dining establishments, was also on hand.  “This is something that will kill our neighborhoods” she told councilmembers during the meeting.

Under the ordinance, venues that serve alcohol would have to apply for three separate $5,000 permits for beer, wine, and liquor.  Currently bars and restaurants only need to apply for one permit.  In addition locations that have multiple bars out of site of one another would need to apply for separate permits, turning what is currently a $5,000 charge into potentially $30,000 or more.

Restaurants and bars already have razor thin margins in many cases, and tripling the cost of obtaining an alcohol permit would be crippling for many smaller businesses.  Obviously, crippling small businesses while opening the door for ‘big box’ stores to move in and replace them is not exactly a popular idea for many Atlantans.

Bremer told InsiderAdvantage that she thought the strong turnout from restaurant owners was a big part of why the measure failed to progress.  “I think they were very taken aback and very surprised by the turnout” she told IAG.  “I really think local government needs to pay attention to how they are treating small businesses.”

The restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing in the state and one of the largest creators of middle class jobs.  Over the past three years alone the number of Georgians employed by the food service industry has jumped from 64,000 to 140,000.

Bremer was also critical of the bill’s failure to bring hard facts to the table, pointing out that the mayor’s representatives at the meeting didn’t have the hard numbers to support their claim that tripling the cost of alcohol permits was necessary.  Not only did the bill not account for the money made off liquor sales via the sales tax, it also was unable to ensure that it would be used for the costs incurred from the permitting process.  Only a change to the Georgia Constitution – which has to be done by the state legislature – can dictate that money raised from a particular tax can be set aside for a particular purpose.  The millions raised by tripling the cost of a liquor license then would go straight into the city’s general fund, an iffy proposition given some of the shady goings on at city hall over the past year.

The Atlanta City Council, which has had an often-tenuous relationship with Reed, was quick with its response.  It tabled the bill for the time being, likely killing it off until next year when a new mayor will have replaced Reed.  With such vocal and unified opposition, it seems unlikely from here that a similar bill would be able to gain much traction even under a new regime.  Bremer told InsiderAdvantage, “I think whichever candidate ends up replacing him (Reed) will probably pay more attention to our industry.”

Given economic importance of the industry and the GRA’s evident ability to mobilize its members in support, that seems like a smart idea for the future mayor, whomever that may be.


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