City Council opposes liquor initiatives

Vancouver faces budget hit of up to $2M if they pass

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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At Mayor Tim Leavitt’s urging, the Vancouver City Council voted Monday night to oppose two liquor privatization initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Initiatives 1100 and 1105 would both remove the state monopoly on the sale of spirits, promising to lower the cost for Washington consumers. But each would have a significant impact on Vancouver’s crippled budget: If I-1100 passes, city budget officials say that the loss would be $1.2 million a year. If I-1105 passes, the cost to the city would be $2 million annually.

“We are laying off 100 people at the city of Vancouver in the next couple of months,” Leavitt said. “You could only imagine what another $2 million hit is going to mean.”

The resolution barely passed, with Leavitt and Councilors Pat Campbell, Larry Smith and Jack Burkman voting in favor. Councilor Bart Hansen abstained and Councilor Jeanne Stewart voted in opposition.

Those voting in favor of the resolution all said they were in favor of the state eventually getting out of the liquor business, but said that the initiatives were flawed, or that it was the wrong time for Vancouver and other cities to absorb more financial blows.

“People need to know where we stand,” Smith said. “This is a terrible time … every penny hurts.”

While neither Hansen nor Stewart seemed thrilled with the initiatives, both expressed reservations about using the city council as a political platform on statewide measures.

“The most important thing to me as a council member is to make sure citizens understand the implications of what they’re voting on,” Stewart said. “Citizens read it, citizens vote, citizens make their decisions. I’m not going to influence that.”

Other cities, including Auburn, Pasco, Sumner and Cheney, have all passed resolutions opposing I-1100 and I-1105, City Attorney Ted Gathe said.

Complaint filed

Also on Monday, the co-author of I-1100 filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission, saying he believes that Leavitt and City Manager Pat McDonnell violated campaign finance laws in drafting the resolution opposing his measure.

State law allows a city council to pass a resolution opposing a ballot proposition, wrote Stefan Sharkansky of Seattle in a letter to the PDC. However, he said that state law does not “expressly permit” city facilities to be used to create the resolution.

He points to the city council agenda, which lists the resolution item as from McDonnell, and a budget impact statement by the city finance office.

“It’s a general issue of government accountability,” Sharkansky said. “They are entitled to express their opinions on issues of the day; that’s what we elect them for. But they need to do it within the context of the law.”

Leavitt, however, said that he checked last week with Gathe about the best way to bring a resolution.

“On the surface, the allegations seem to be frivolous to me,” Leavitt said.

Gathe said nearly all items on the agenda are listed as coming from McDonnell, and that the council has considered at least two or three similar resolutions in the last decade, all done in the same way.

“Obviously if you’re going to bring a resolution before council, that’s also subject to a public hearing, it would be written, printed and distributed using city facilities,” Gathe said. “It’s absurd to see it can be done any other way.”

A spokeswoman for the PDC said Monday they received the complaint, and the commission’s complaint manager will decide if an investigation is necessary.

Facts disputed

Sharkansky said his primary reason to file the PDC complaint was really to set the record straight about “objective statements of fact” in Vancouver’s resolution that “are not actually true.”

In the resolution, the city says that it opposes Initiatives 1100 and 1105 because a loss of up to $2 million in the midst of budget shortfalls would lead to further cuts in public safety. The initiatives would go into effect on a staggered timeline until mid-2012, so the city would use budget balances to make up any losses felt in 2011 and 2012, and then adjust for the losses in 2013.

“It is also implausible that a responsible city administration would necessarily respond to voter-mandated discontinuation of a relatively minor revenue source by first firing police officers,” he wrote in his complaint.

However, Vancouver officials have said that public safety is next on the chopping block because they’ve cut too deeply in other areas over the last decade while trying to preserve staffing in police and fire.

I-1100 also creates hard liquor license fees of $1,000 a year for stores and $2,000 a year for distributors that must be go to liquor law enforcement and abuse reduction, Sharkansky said.

The city’s resolution also states concern that the proliferation of hard liquor sales will contribute to further alcohol abuse, and that the city’s downtown Alcohol Impact Area would be affected.

To deal with “chronic inebriation” downtown, the city limits the sale of low-cost, high-alcohol drinks in an impact area, the resolution reads.

“The passage of either or both of these Initiatives will allow every business, whether it is a grocery store, convenience store or mini-mart that currently sells wine and beer, to sell hard liquor, which will not only adversely affect the City’s Alcohol Impact Area, but may also contribute to increased risk of underage and problem drinking,” the resolution says.

Sharkansky countered that not every business would be allowed a hard-liquor license, only those in “good standing” with the state. Gathe said the city would be “glad to add that” to the resolution.

I-1100 would also prohibit sales of hard liquor at stores that have an alcohol impact area stipulation on their liquor licenses, Sharkansky said. However, business participation in Vancouver’s impact area — unlike many other cities — is voluntary, so stores in Vancouver’s downtown would be permitted to sell hard alcohol, Gathe said.