Alcohol licenses in the spotlight as Council considers changes

During Tuesday's regular Fort Payne City Council meeting, Sherrie Hiett, the executive director of Family Services of North Alabama, briefly spoke about efforts to increase awareness of human trafficking in the area by networking with local schools, hotels and gas stations. Hiett said most of the activity in this area involves family members sold repeatedly for hits of drugs rather than the random abductions into sex slavery that many people may imagine from watching movies like "Taken."

Fort Payne’s “historic district” may be expanded to accommodate any additional businesses wanting to sell alcohol if a proposed ordinance is passed at the next City Council meeting. The Council also adopted a stricter penalty for addressing vendors who routinely fail to pay their monthly taxes that could include suspension of their license to sell alcoholic beverages.

A first reading was given for Ordinance 2021-17, which would amend a 2013 ordinance establishing the boundaries of the historic district in downtown Fort Payne to encompass an area between the railroad track and Grand Avenue from 3rd Street South to 9th Street North to allow for the sale of alcohol should a business choose to do so. The alcohol committee passed the amendment unanimously.

City Attorney Rocky Watson said the existing ordinances overrule the 200-foot setback rule adopted by a previous Council to add a buffer between such businesses and nearby churches. There are two churches on First Street alone, First Baptist Church and Church at the Vineyard, that would have otherwise prevented new restaurants from opening.

No one spoke in opposition to the measure at Tuesday’s meeting. Council members will again consider the ordinance for passage at their Dec. 7 meeting after allowing for public comment.

The Council voted to suspend its carryover rule to adopt a separate ordinance, 2021-18, expanding penalties for non-payment of monthly taxes. The alcohol committee endorsed the amendment unanimously.

City Clerk Andy Parker said there’s one vendor in particular, who he declined to name in public, who has repeatedly been delinquent on sending checks to City Hall. Citing the need for enforcement mechanisms with more teeth, the new rules levy a $500 penalty on top of the 15% penalty and 3% interest already charged and a business may have its alcohol license suspended for two weeks for sending payment past 60 days delinquent. If this happens more than once, the City may revoke that business owner’s alcohol license permanently at that location. Parker said if this happens, the alcohol committee and City Council will likely be very reluctant to issue any new licenses to anyone with such a history.

Council President Pro-Tem Lynn Brewer, who owns a restaurant and bar downtown, described that sort of penalty as “scary” and thus properly incentivizing everyone to send their payments on time. She made the motion to adopt the ordinance, receiving a second from Council member Phillip Smith.

Smith had asked about systems of notification to the business owners to make certain they are aware of being late on making a payment. Parker responded that anyone failing to act in a timely manner violates state law. Brewer suggested Michael Griggs, who handles enforcement of alcohol rules, might teach a class for local business owners to make sure they are in compliance with state and local rules since they can be complicated.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the Council approved a change in the alcohol license for San Jose Mexican Restaurant to reflect new ownership, as unanimously approved by the alcohol committee.

Mayor Brian Baine defended the City’s tougher stance on enforcing its existing rules and called for the creation of a new job of “ordinance officer.” The position is covered under the recently adopted City budget, requiring no adjustments made.

“This City Hall is pro-business precisely because we want to create an equal playing field where everyone is required to abide by the same set of rules,” Baine said.

The Council also:

• approved an $80,000 one-time pay adjustment for employees ahead of the holidays, with Council President Walter Watson voicing opposition due to concerns about the pace of new spending.

• approved spending money to acquire additional drainage pipe to be paid for from the 7-cent gas fund before anticipated price increases of between 30-50% for the coming year.

• adopted ordinance 2021-15 setting speed limits on certain roads in the Terrapin Hills Subdivision at 25 mph, excluding some areas with blind spots or hills that will have a 15 mph speed limit posted. This will enable the police department to issue citations for offenders to address complaints.

• adopted ordinance 2021-16 rezoning 2.17 acres located at 1509 Adamsburg Road.

• approved an activity permit for the Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce to host the annual Christmas Parade on Friday, Dec. 10. It will start at 6 p.m., beginning at 18th Street North and ending at Third Street South. It will follow Christmas in the Park festivities in City Park starting that same day at 4 p.m.

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