WASHINGTON COUNTY – With less than a month left before the deadline, political action committee (PAC) Advance Washington is still more than 1,000 petitions from gaining the signatures required to place liquor sales on a ballot.
The petition, aimed at changing Washington County’s status as one of Florida’s three remaining “dry counties,” must be signed by 25 percent of Washington County’s registered voters.
Similar to the way candidates qualify by petition to run for office, the petition addressing alcohol is not an actual vote for liquor sales, rather an approval to have the issue brought before county voters in a special referendum, which will ask voters to decide first on allowing the sale of wine and intoxicating liquors and then on the method of sale, selecting from “by package only” or “by package and by drink”.
By end of business day Monday, 2,885 of the approximate 4,200 required petitions had been certified by the Washington County Supervisor of Elections Office. Another 407 petitions were rejected for a variety of reasons, including addresses not matching and incomplete forms.
Advance Washington County pays the Elections Office ten cents per ballot, a cost that is carried by private donations.
Some voters were recently confused after receiving letters regarding their petition, stating the petition had either been rejected or not received.
Supervisor of Elections Carol Finch Rudd and Advance Washington County both explained the letters came directly from Advance Washington County and were sent in error.
“The SOE office has been receiving calls concerning letters that were sent out to some voters in Washington County by Advance Washington County,” said Rudd. “If you received a letter regarding a petition that was rejected, you may always call our office to confirm. Additionally, you would have also received an official letter from the WCSOE stating the reason your petition was rejected. We believe many of these letters were intended to be sent to those who had not responded to their first mailer, meaning no petition had been signed to begin with.”
Rudd went on to say that any correspondence from the Elections Office would be in an official envelope with the SOE’s identifying information.
Meanwhile, the liquor sale debate continues among residents. Those opposing the measure worry about the impact on families.
Johnathan Taylor, who serves as Pastor of Eastside Baptist Church, said the issue became more clear to him last summer when his wife was involved in a head-on collision on State Road 79. The other driver, whose blood alcohol level was later determined to be .12, was killed in that crash, and Taylor’s wife sustained several injuries.
“I’m not supporting anything that almost took my wife’s life,” said Taylor.
“I’ve looked at Holmes County and Jackson County, and they aren’t any more prosperous than we are, and they aren’t dry counties. Moreover, there’s nothing in this that honors God. I don’t mean to sound pious, but it’s a fact that we have commissioners meeting under a sign that says, ‘In God We Trust,’ when I can find nothing in the scriptures about this that honors God.”
Jody Bush states that while she can see the economic benefits, she worries about the effects on the local businesses.
“I worry about the mom-and-pop restaurants,” she said. “We have plenty of chain restaurants here. Our small town exist because of them. They’re already struggling. Why would we cut their throat any more?”
Bush says she also knows the personal impact alcoholism can have on families and worries a vote for the sale here could increase the number of families affected.
“My life impacts from alcohol began early on with family members and continued for the first 12 years of my marriage before my husband was delivered and became a pastor. If I could spare just one family, I would.”
Brandon Lovering of Advance Washington County stresses that the purpose of the initiative remains about economic development.
“People get very caught up in this is an alcohol issue, and of course, that is part of it, but if we are ever going to grow as a community with new jobs, new restaurants, and opportunities that people all seem to want, this is the first step in allowing those type of business to come here,” said Lovering.
“I have spoken over the past few months with commercial appraisers who say there are businesses looking at properties along I-10, and one of the economic drivers they look at is whether the site is in a wet or dry county, even if that business isn’t going to sell alcohol. It’s an economic driver because it tells the businesses if the doors are open in the county for growth, that there are a lot of businesses that will follow other businesses.”
Lovering went on to add that several businesses that have rejected Washington County in favor of Holmes could have factored the county’s dry status as one of their reasons.
“This is not about stand-alone bars,” he added. “There are actually measures in place that prevent those. This petition is to allow for restaurants that have 51 percent of revenues from food sales to be able to serve alcohol. The other vote is for package stores.”
The number of package store locations allowed to sell alcohol is limited by population at one license for every 7,500 residents.
With the last U.S. Census data showing Washington County as having a population of approximately 24,896, that would mean no more than three licenses available for stores. Restaurants that derive more than 51 percent of revenue from food sales and have available seating for 150 or more in at least 2,500 square ft. may obtain a special license to sell beer, wine, and liquor for consumption on premise.
Other factors, such as zoning requirements and a 500-ft. setback from schools, will also apply.
“If we’re talking about generating tax revenue, this is a start,” said Lovering. “At some point, maybe we will get to lower our millage rate on our property taxes if we have revenue from other sources. Lastly, this is an issue that the voters should be able to decide on. One of the rights afforded to us is the right to choose and voice our opinion on issues and the right to vote.”
Currently, Washington, Lafayette, and Liberty counties are Florida’s only remaining dry counties.
The deadline for the required petitions to be certified is October 15.