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If I-1183 passes, chiefs won't be worried

South Kitsap public safety officials are not siding with the lawmen and firefighters featured in campaign ads against a ballot measure to privatize liquor sales in Washington state.

The first television commercial to air urging voters to reject Initiative 1183 has a sheriff, a police chief and two firefighter/paramedics warning of the potential danger of allowing more stores to sell liquor.

But Port Orchard police Chief Al Townsend and South Kitsap Fire & Rescue Chief Wayne Senter, among others, don’t share the view that I-1183 poses a grave risk.

Neither agency has taken an official position for or against the measure, but both leaders expressed their personal views that the idea of shifting liquor sales to the private sector doesn’t worry them.

“From my particular standpoint, I am generally supportive of the initiative,” Senter said. “Although I understand firefighters and police officers weighing in, that they think it’s going to cause huge public safety risks; but I don’t see that.”

Townsend reacted similarly when asked about the anti-1183 campaign.

“I have not taken a position as police chief of Port Orchard. I likely won’t,” he wrote in an email to the Independent. “I will say that I don’t see anything about the initiative that would cause me concern for public safety in my community.

“There are many states where the proposed system is used and I don’t see how that has adversely impacted public safety.”

I-1183 would end the state monopoly on distribution and sales of hard spirits. So instead of making a trip to a state-run store to purchase liquor, consumers could go to grocery stores and other outlets that currently sell beer and wine.

As was the case last year, one retailer -- Costco -- is bankrolling the initiative campaign, and a national industry group, Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, is funding the opposition.

Issaquah-based Costco has provided most of about $5 million donated to the Yes on I-1183 Coalition. A campaign committee calling itself Protect Our Communities that is running the ads against I-1183 has raised slightly more than $6 million, with almost all of the money coming from the liquor wholesalers group.

If voters approve I-1183, retail liquor outlets, as well as restaurants and bars, would be able to purchase their inventory directly from manufacturers, bypassing the wholesalers who are locked into the state-run system.

This year’s privatization measure is different from last year’s unsuccessful Costco-backed Initiative 1100 in one key way: Only stores that have a minimum of 10,000 square feet of retail space could get liquor licenses. That would effectively bar liquor sales at minimarts and gas stations, places that tend to have more violations for selling alcohol to minors.

But a provision in I-1183 would allow such places to apply for and be granted a liquor license if there is no other licensed outlet in their “trade area,” although the Washington State Liquor Control Board has not yet defined what a trade area encompasses.

Senter noted that if the initiative passes, the state will retain licensing and regulatory authority over liquor sales, so restrictions on business hours for selling booze will remain intact even if there are more stores.

Also, the state stands to gain some revenue from switching to private-sector liquor stores, though it’s a relatively small amount in the context of state budget shortfalls in the billions of dollars over the last few years and in the current biennium.

According to the state Office of Financial Management, passage of I-1183 would result in 1,428 retail liquor stores, compared with 328 state-run stores currently operating. That’s a lot fewer than that last year’s OFM estimate of 3,357 retail liquor stores if I-1100 would have passed.

OFM also estimates that if I-1183 passes, it would add more than $200 million in revenue for the state over the next six years, and an additional $200 million in local government revenues.

According to the Washington Policy Center, even with 1,428 retail liquor stores in Washington, it would rank seventh among 11 Western states in its ratio of liquor outlets per capita. Washington currently ranks tenth, with only Utah having fewer outlets per capita.

“Personally, as a citizen, I support competition and think that provides a better level of service and selection,” Townsend said. “That is often times why government doesn’t work efficiently, because there is no one to compete with.”

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