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Opposition, education, on liquor proposal

Opposition to allowing packaged liquor stores to open in Clinton is ramping up as petitions circulate throughout the city seeking to put the measure on the Nov. 3 election ballot.

Proponents of the idea are trying to gather enough signatures on the petitions to force the question onto the ballot, where it could win with just a simple majority vote. Deadline to get the question on the ballot is Aug. 20, and organizers of the drive say they’re trying to get at least 400 valid signatures of registered voters who live within the city limits.

Lee Hickman, pastor of Black Oak Baptist Church, says he’s opposed to allowing liquor stores in Clinton, but that he’s not actually trying to stop the petitions or keep the liquor stores issue off the ballot.

“All I’m trying to do is to educate people on the other side of the argument, not to try to keep it off the ballot,” Hickman said Monday. “I just want to educate people on the consequences and effects of what it would do if it comes into our town.”

Hickman said that a group called the Tennessee Pastors Network has contacted him about helping in a campaign to get the measure defeated at the ballot box.

“They have been involved in three other city measures like this where liquor stores were on the ballot, and they won a defeat in all three” he said. “They asked if I wanted them to come out and help in Clinton with this. This topic is garnering attention all over the state.” He said he told them that for now, he did not need their help.

He has made two posts in opposition to liquor stores in Clinton on the I Love Clinton! Facebook page, and he said comments were running “literally about 50-50” for and against the idea.

“There were 253 comments and 15 shares on my first post,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a tough outcome this time.”

Hickman said he doesn’t buy the argument that bringing a liquor store to Clinton would be a good thing just because it would bring in some extra tax dollars.

“Every single study I’ve seen shows that when these stores come into a city like ours, you’ll be paying more to keep things under control than whatever tax revenue you’ll get from it.”

The petition drive was begun in mid-July by Tracy Hooper, property manager of the Carriage Hill/Carriage Trace apartments, and the effort is backed by local developer Joe Hollingsworth, Hooper said.

Organizers must submit petitions with at least “357 valid signatures” to qualify to get thew measure on the ballot, Hooper said she was told by the Anderson County Elections Commission.

“We’re shooting for well above that so we can make sure we have enough valid signatures,” she said. “We were told it had to be 10 percent of the voters in the last governor’s race. Anyone registered to vote who lives in the city limits is allowed to sign.”

Hooper said the petition drive “officially started at the Get ‘n’ Go,” and that so far, “It’s going pretty well. We stood outside the Get ‘n’ Go for a couple of days. We also tell people we can come to them to sign the petitions.”

She said that she doesn’t know of anyone yet who has any interest in opening a package store in Clinton.

Hickman, though, said he believes there must be someone wanting to set up a store, or the issue wouldn’t have been brought up and the petition drive started right now. The measure was last on the Clinton city ballot in 2001, when it failed by “three or four votes,” Clinton City Manager Roger Houck said.

The issue of allowing liquor by the drink in Clinton was on that same ballot, and passed by just three votes, Houck said.

Clinton officially is taking no position on the question, and will let the issue be decided by the voters.

In an email, Hickman gave his reasons for opposing liquor stores in Clinton.

“Again, let me be very clear, I am in no way opposed to this, or anything else for that matter, being on the ballot; I am as pro-democracy as you can get,” Hickman wrote. “I do, however, feel compelled to educate our city on the effects these stores could bring to a city like ours.

“As a pastor, it is hard for me not to bring in the theological debate surrounding alcohol, but I understand that not everyone that is a part of this discussion is a Christian or adheres to the teaching of scriptures. Knowing this to be true, I am simply presenting facts and studies done by secular organizations that show these establishments are not needed in Clinton.

“As I have stated already on social media, according to the 2018 census, Clinton has 10,028 citizens; we are considered ‘a small town.’ According to the same census, 15.2 percent of Clinton [residents] live below the poverty line, which is higher than the national average of 13.1 percent. So, we are a small town with a higher than normal poverty rate.

“According to the Alcohol Research Group, in an article published in 2018, alcohol outlets, such as package stores, are linked to higher rates of homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. The results were even greater in communities with lower income where residents had greater access to liquor.

“Furthermore, according to the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health of the University of Minnesota, heavy alcohol use, especially in a low-income community, is associated with a variety of health and social problems including cardiovascular disease, cancers, and liver cirrhosis.

“Further, there are increases in DUIs, assaults, and domestic violence. The same research concluded that there are more negative effects related to: work, societal issues, and health due to the consumption of alcohol and liquor if it is more readily available within a low-income community.”

Hickman also said that “researchers at the John[s] Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have concluded that package stores have a strong association with incidences of violent crimes.”

“Their studies found that when people, especially those who live in low-income communities, have greater, convenient access to liquor, there is a 37 percent greater association with violent crimes, including homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. Consequently, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates skyrocket,” he said.

“The facts and research present a clear picture of the deleterious effects of the convenience of liquor stores in a community such as ours. As much as all of us love our town, I do not believe deep down … that we want what these establishments could bring to our city. … The broken lives, the broken homes, the increase in unemployment, increases in personal debt, and greater than that, broken children who will live in homes with abuse or homes that are fatherless and/or motherless.”

As for the tax issue, Hickman noted “ … the only argument for the positive that I keep hearing is how these establishments will bring in tax revenue for our town. We need to understand that once we send a big chunk of the tax revenue to the liquor distributors, the little left over will in no way cover the extra expenses we will have from the effects these stores will bring on our community.”

(Actually, the liquor distributors would be the ones paying most of the taxes to the city, collected on wholesale deliveries to the stores -- up to 5 percent, designated as a municipal “inspection fee.”)

Hooper, the petition drive organizer, said earlier that, “I think it’s kind of silly we’re the only city in Anderson County that doesn’t allow liquor sales. Right now, people have to go to Norris, Rocky Top or Oak Ridge.”

By state law, city voters may choose whether to approve or reject package stores, but once they are approved, they are regulated and licensed by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and cities have virtually no control over them other than zoning.

“The city can possibly limit the number of stores,” Houck said.

Under state law, the measure has to be on a general-election ballot; it can’t be put on a primary ballot. And if the measure fails, it can’t be put on the ballot again for two years – or four years if at least 60 percent of the voters disapprove.