Proposals for Change or Privitization Possible in 2010
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
Controversy over ABC administrator salaries in New Hanover County has led the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board there to resign and has many calling for the state to privatize liquor sales or a least conduct a statewide probe into the 75-year-old system. Meanwhile, state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents have charged the Mecklenburg ABC Board with accepting illegal gifts from a liquor company.
“These events reveal problems that need to be addressed and show how aggressive alcohol marketing is,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. But he cautioned Tar Heel leaders not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
“Privatization would produce a host of other issues more serious than outrageous salary levels for local ABC executives,” he said. “We also shouldn’t rush to take away too much control from the local boards. Corruption is less apt to occur when power is shared and spread about rather than centralized.”
According to The Charlotte Observer, ALE reports showed that Diageo spent $9,334 on a holiday dinner for the Mecklenburg ABC Board, a meal at Del Frisco’s that included $1,000 for champagne and nearly $1,800 for wine. Diageo faces 28 violations, each with a maximum fine of $5,000. State ABC attorneys are reviewing how the alleged board violations should be addressed.
In New Hanover County, the resignation of the three-member ABC Board followed a series of articles in The Star News revealing administrator Billy Williams’ $279,000-plus salary package and more than $139,000 earmarked for his son, assistant administrator Bradley Williams, this year. Resigning board members defended the high salaries and annual bonuses saying that both men had worked their way up to their posts. Billy Williams started his career with ABC as a clerk in 1968. He does not set his son’s pay rate.
New Hanover’s ABC system, among the highest grossing in the state, sold more than $30 million worth of liquor last fiscal year.
According to The Star News, Gov. Beverly Perdue has vowed to talk to county ABC leaders about reforming the system. Her Budget Reform and Accountability Commission had already been eyeing a 2008 report from the Legislature’s Program Evaluation Division that called the ABC system “outdated” and “in need of modernization.”
A lack of guidance and a lack of unity among the stated purposes of local boards were among PED report criticisms.
One of 18 “control states,” North Carolina allows liquor sales in some 400 state-run ABC stores in locations where voters have approved them. Rather than trusting part-time, minimum-wage convenience store employees to enforce alcohol laws, local boards hire, train and offer benefits so that ABC store workers have more at risk if they sell to minors or violate other regulations.
Without any public funding, the system brings in more than $233 million a year to the state and local governments, while helping to keep consumption in check. In fact, last year North Carolina was 45th in the nation in spirits per capita consumption but ranked 7th in revenue per gallon generated.
“Our ABC system is not perfect. There is always room for improvement, but it offers more control and makes more sense, both in terms of dealing with alcohol problems and financially than does privatization,” said the Rev. Creech.
Research shows that consumption rises with the number of alcohol outlets, a given with privatization. Underage drinking is also harder to combat in states with privatized sales. In fact, according to the Pacific Institution for Research and Evaluation, having liquor limited to state-run stores is “probably twice as effective as other means, such as sobriety checkpoints or zero tolerance policies, in preventing underage drinking.”
The Rev. Creech said this alone should make lawmakers think twice before planning to dismantle the ABC system. Nonetheless, he urges North Carolinians to expect proposed changes and likely a call for privatization during the upcoming Legislative session.
“Drinkers already have plenty of access to alcohol in North Carolina without putting sales on every corner,” he said. “We hope lawmakers will examine every aspect of this issue, address those problems that need addressing and keep the benefits of the control system that we would lose with privatization.”