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With voting blocs building, Little could decide proposed alcohol changes' fate

 

David Little, left, and Lynn Spruill

David Little, left, and Lynn Spruill

 

 

Carl Smith

 

The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.

 

The sides supporting and opposing easements to Starkville's restrictions on alcohol sales are taking shape, and Ward 3 Alderman David Little could be the swing vote on the matter after aldermen deadlocked Friday on an attempt to pull a call for public hearings from Tuesday's agenda. 

 

Little's absence from Friday's work session allowed Mayor Lynn Spruill to cast the tie-breaking vote keeping the agenda item, which calls for public input sessions on three proposals that would put the city's rules in line with state standards, alive. 

 

Specifically, those changes would reduce the distance from churches that areas zoned for commercial use are allowed to sell alcohol by the drink from 250 feet to 100 feet, allow businesses to sell beer with 8-percent alcohol content and allow restaurants and bars to sell alcohol up to 1 a.m. each day of the week. 

 

Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, whose attempt to remove the item from Tuesday's agenda was eventually joined by Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, said delaying the call for public hearings would allow leaders more time for input on the issue from their constituents. 

 

Ward 5 Alderman Patrick Miller, however, contested his motion and said public hearings will provide exactly what Carver said he wants: community input.  

 

The vote on Carver's motion removing the matter from Tuesday's agenda ended in a 3-3 split after Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk and Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker joined Miller's opposition.  

 

"I don't know how I'm going to vote (on the proposed changes) yet, but I'm certainly willing to hear what people have to say. These decisions ... aren't decisions that we should make lightly. There needs to be due diligence and deliberation ... because it does impact the health, safety and welfare of our constituents," Walker said. "If you look back and track (tax receipts) ... our city lives on sales tax and the 2 percent (food and beverage) tax. I think to balance the scale, you have to hear both sides of the argument. I'd like to hear what people have to say ... to make the best long-term decision."  

 

When asked by Carver if she had four votes in place to push forward the proposed alcohol changes, Spruill said she had informal conversations with aldermen about the matter but a coalition was not yet in place. 

 

"I consider it an economic development (issue). I believe it allows our downtown to ... 'stay alive after 5 p.m.' I'm concerned we're getting to the point where (restaurants) are starting to shut down after 5 p.m. again. That is not in the best interest for the health of our downtown," she said. "I am dragging you through this without four votes in place. I think it's important. It's significant to maintain a vibrant downtown." 

 

If Friday's voting bloc remains in place -- Carver, Perkins and Vaughn have routinely opposed loosening or expanding Starkville's alcohol laws in the past, while Sistrunk supported Sunday sales in 2009 -- Little's vote will be the deciding factor for the proposed changes. 

 

Little was out of town Friday and was not immediately available for comment, Carver declined to comment after the vote and Perkins previously said his "religious and Christian beliefs" compel him to oppose loosening up alcohol restrictions.  

 

"Having establishments that sell alcohol, beer, whiskey or wine in such close proximity to the church is frowned upon by God," he said Wednesday. 

 

After the meeting, Miller said revising the rules governing alcohol sales would "be vital to alleviating the tax burdens for citizens" and would spur economic and business development throughout Starkville. 

 

"If passed, the ordinance would serve as another example of business owners and citizens working together to create a forward-thinking Starkville and a city that is truly beneficial to everyone," he said. 

 

Like Walker, Sistrunk also said she is awaiting public comments before making a decision on the proposed changes. 

 

"As with any vote, I hope each of us studies the issue and gets the input needed to make a decision that is in the best interest of Starkville," she said following Friday's meeting. "Yea or nay? I'm willing to listen to compelling arguments for either vote." 

 

All three proposals sought by Spruill are allowed by state law. 

 

The previous board of aldermen was set to discuss lowering the distance for sales in 2014, but the agenda item was pulled before a meeting and never brought up again last term. 

 

Adjusting the city's definition of beer to the 8-percent alcohol content is seen as a clerical change after state lawmakers approved their sales with 2012 legislation. 

 

Currently, Starkville's bars and restaurants must conclude alcohol sales at midnight Tuesdays through Fridays when counting Monday through Thursday as the official day sales began; Saturdays and Sundays at 1 a.m. when sales began Friday and Saturday; Sundays again at 10 p.m. when sales began that day; and 1 a.m. the day after a Mississippi State University home football game falls on a weekday. 

 

Veranda owner and chef Jay Yates, who also leads the Golden Triangle Restaurant Association, previously stumped for the potential extension in sales hours, saying such a move would be friendly to businesses. 

 

"The city is growing and there is more nightlife now. Our leaders say they want to be business friendly, so let's go across the board (with the time adjustment). You see a lot of 1s and 2s across Mississippi already," he said. "From a community standpoint, it's just time to do it." 

 

The changes have the backing of the Starkville Main Street Association, which unanimously voted last week to bring the proposal to the city. 

 

"New retail businesses and restaurants will be interested in our community with these progressive and forward-thinking opportunities allowed through passage of the proper ordinances," wrote SMSA Board Chairman Michelle Jones in an Aug. 3 letter to the city. "We support the growth and progress of current and future local businesses. (SMSA) ... supports the preservation, growth and vitality of downtown Starkville, and we believe this change will further propel our community as the best college town in Mississippi." 

 

The city's working policy on changes to its code calls for two public hearings to be held before laws are amended. If aldermen schedule two public hearings on each of the board meetings following Tuesday's meeting, aldermen could hold those input-gathering sessions on Sept. 5 and 19 and approve the changes after the final hearing. 

 

If approved, the ordinance change could go into effect in October after a 30-day wait.

 

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch

 

 

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