Over time, Oconee County warmed up to the sale of alcohol. First came a favorable vote to sell beer and wine. Then in 2014, citizens decided it was time for the pouring of distilled spirits. Aside from lifting the ban on liquor stores, Sunday sales is the last frontier.
The Oconee County Chamber has put its support behind the two alcohol referenda, and at a candidate forum last Thursday, Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer and Winder Publix Manager Mike Olive (filling in for Butler’s Crossing Public Manager Dennis Curry, who was on vacation) highlighted the economic benefits for both restaurants and groceries or convenience stores.
But Elder Road Baptist Church Minister Carlton Shelton is confident that his congregation and other churchgoers in Oconee County will vote no on religious grounds.
He asked the three commission candidates whether they would revisit the issue if it did not pass this year. “If it’s defeated, it’s defeated,” Chuck Horton said with a caveat that he can’t predict how a future set of commissioners would feel.
Marcus Wiedower echoed Horton’s statement. Ben Bridges said he was shocked when he found out Sunday sales was placed on the ballot.
“If you want to drink on Sunday, buy it on Saturday,” he said. Annette Sledge, 85, said she’s against selling alcohol on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and “Lord of mercy, on Sunday.”
Wes Wilson commended Sledge for “speaking from the heart” while also noting that no one spoke as passionately in favor of Sunday sales as Sledge spoke in opposition. “I think [Sunday] is a day of rest and worship,” said Kay Shepherd. “I honor that day.”
Neither Bremer nor Olive broached the subject of religion. Instead, their platform focused on the economic gains in their respective professions. Bremer said that the 20 percent volume of alcohol sales is very profitable.
“It’s a product that doesn’t spoil,” she said, giving the example of how bartenders don’t throw away Vodka like chefs toss out lettuce. “The Vodka will not go bad. It’s a commodity that doesn’t spoil.”
Olive said the Watkinsville store too frequently tells Sunday customers that they are unable to complete a transaction. Cashiers put the drinks back on the shelf and tell the customer to visit on another day, he said.
The current ELOST will expire in December 2017 and if approved, the next one will go into effect January 2018.
By law, the school system is not permitted to campaign for ELOST, but Branch has taken several opportunities to educate the public on where the money would go if it passed.
ELOST can be used for capital projects, technology and buses but cannot fund employee salaries or general operations.
Branch said a new elementary school and added classrooms at various schools are necessary to meet enrollment needs. Oconee County Schools will enroll an added 1,000 children within the next five years, resulting in an increase of 1,900 in a 10-year span.
If approved, the next ELOST could yield $45 million, but because it currently comes in through an average of $535,000 monthly increments, the school system will need to borrow the funds to start the purchase of land and construction for the seventh elementary school in the northern end of the county.
The BOE anticipates issuing general obligation debt in an amount not to exceed $24.5 million.
Branch said the interest rates in the bond market are favorable and that the “slight additional cost would be well worth the advancement.”
“Otherwise,” he said, “We have to wait for those pennies to come in.”
The last day to register for the November election is Oct. 11, and early voting starts on Oct. 17 at the Oconee Elections Office.
For more on this story, see the Sept. 22 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, go to oconeeenterprise.com or call (706) 769-5175.