Next week, one of the only two completely dry counties in the state will have a chance to vote to buy beer, wine and liquor within county lines.
Supporters of going wet say a new study estimates the county could gain $35,000 per year in revenue from legal alcohol sales, and say that money could aid the county school system.
Opponents remain unconvinced and say the numbers are inflated, and prove nothing.
Keep Dollars in Randolph County, a group pushing for the mostly rural, dry county to go wet, released a study last week showing what the area stands to gain if residents vote in favor of alcohol sales.
Currently, the county receives $305,000 in annual revenue from the state “in-lieu-of” alcohol tax. The study, put together by Roanoke businessman Roy Terry, claims alcohol sales could bring in at least $340,000 to the general fund based on Census Bureau numbers from 2010, and alcohol consumption statistics from the Beer Institute’s Brewer’s Almanac, also from 2010.
The study also said the county school system could see an additional $259,000 in tax revenue.
But some residents don’t think all of the numbers add up.
Roanoke resident Jeff Nolen, who opposes going wet, said he believes every person has the right to choose if they wish to drink alcohol. But he doesn’t think adding legal alcohol sales in the county makes sense from an economic standpoint.
Nolen said the pro-alcohol group’s claims that alcohol sales will usher business into the area and create jobs is far off the mark and based on inflated and unsustainable estimates. He said there are plenty of growing economies in the world that don’t rely on alcohol sales.
But most importantly, Nolen said, the loss of money the county receives from the state “in lieu of” alcohol tax, and the projections the study claim can be made up by alcohol sales are unrealistic.
“To make up the shortfall in the deficit you’re asking every man, woman and child and the elderly to drink 20 gallons of alcohol a year,” Nolen said. “That’s just not going to happen in Randolph County.”
Ron Young, co-chairman of Keep Dollars in Randolph County, said the group’s opponents skew the numbers based on a misunderstanding of what ‘per capita’ means.
“They want to take the per capita and subtract young and old population from it,” Young said, explaining the opponents have tried to undermine the “average per person” statistics. “That’s not how per capita works.”
Perhaps the most visible proponent of keeping the county dry is state Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke.
In 2008, the Legislature passed a bill proposed by Laird which essentially prevented municipalities in Randolph and Clay County from voting to go wet, even if they met new state criteria to hold such a referendum by having a population of more than 1,000 residents.
Laird said his exemption of the two counties helped to keep a fair balance and prevented one city in the county from holding a monopoly on alcohol sales in the area.
Not that he wants alcohol sales at all, even now, for Randolph County.
“First of all, it’s going to lose money,” Laird said, noting that local municipalities are unable to add tax to alcohol sales, which are set by the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control Board.
In particular, Laird said, the study’s indication that it could boost the Randolph County school system by earmarking more than $250,000 from alcohol sales alone, just isn’t possible.
He said there was an economic downturn in Chambers County in the 1990s after Randolph’s neighbor to the south allowed legal alcohol sales.
“They’ve had to raise taxes three different times to make up for those shortfalls, and you see the unemployment go up and the income goes down,” Laird said. “I know that because I’ve served Chambers County in my district for a long time.”
But at least one official in Chambers County said Laird’s math is skewed. Although two schools in the county did close in the 1990s, Chambers County School Superintendent Kelli Tucker said, that had nothing to do with shortfalls in the budget from alcohol sales. Enrollment turned out to be the culprit.
“Currently, the Alcohol tax in Chambers County is a great benefit to the school system,” Tucker wrote in a letter addressed to the Board of Education last week. “For the 2012 tax year, the school system received over $171,000 in revenues. While this amount of money is not enough to fund an entire school, it provides a steady stream of revenue to support the educational programs.”
Young, who’s been handling most of the campaign work for the group, joked Friday that he’s learned he’s not much of a politician the last few months. But the message he’s been trying to make clear to Randolph County residents is that the figures speak for themselves.
“What it comes down to is we’ve got great numbers on our side,” Young said. “All of them back up what we’re doing.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.