Missouri cuts field checks on alcohol sales

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A $1.3 million cut in funding for the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control will eliminate the agency's ability to do field enforcement of laws designed to prevent minors from drinking or smoking.

As of June 15, the agency will cut back from 41 to 17 employees, with a single field officer stationed in five district offices, including one in Cape Girardeau, said Mike O'Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety. The Southeast Missouri region from Jefferson County to the Bootheel currently has three field agents.

As a result of the cutbacks, the field agents will no longer be able to participate in efforts to check whether bars or retailers are selling drinks or tobacco to underage people. Those duties will become the responsibility of local police, which, O'Connell said, have already been handling most of the burden anyway.

The agency will continue to monitor reports from local police about incidents at bars such as fighting, after-hours sales or sales to minors, O'Connell said. Those violations will continue to result in license warnings, revocations or suspensions, he said.

"There is a difference between regulatory enforcement and criminal enforcement," O'Connell said. "The division shares criminal enforcement with local police, and local law enforcement is doing many of these functions now."

Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison said the cuts have been expected because of a severe drop-off in state tax receipts.

Lawmakers cut $1.4 million in state tax money from the agency's budget, which was $2.9 million in the fiscal year that will end June 30. The alcohol enforcement agency expects to see federal funding increase by $140,000, but that is not enough to offset the cuts.

The cuts follow reductions made several years ago that limited the division's participation in enforcing liquor and tobacco laws, Kinnison said.

"We have been accustomed to stepping up," Kinnison said. "The levels of enforcement you counted on from the state before just aren't there."

Compliance checks are one of the most visible ways of enforcing liquor and tobacco laws. The division or a local agency sends minors into a bar or retailer with instructions to attempt to make a purchase but to not lie about their age or present fake identification.

Cape Girardeau has for several years been using grant money to pay officer overtime and the minors used in the compliance checks, Kinnison said. "We will continue to do some level of enforcement and anything beyond that we are just going to have to work our way through."

The state agency had used two federal grants, one administered by the public safety department's Juvenile Justice Program and another funded through the Missouri Department of Transportation, to pay agents overtime hours during sting operations. The money also supported "shoulder tap" enforcement, where agents ask drinkers at bars or special events to show they are 21 or older, and server training programs.

Those programs won't go away, there just won't be any state agents involved, O'Connell said. "ATC will work alongside these police chiefs and sheriffs on what is the best way to utilize that money," he said.

The MoDOT program, with $300,000 available annually, will be in limbo until its rules are redesigned, said program manager Bill Whitfield. The money will now be awarded to local agencies but no decisions on how the money will be distributed have been made, he said.

"It is a little premature to say how that is going to work," he said.

Kinnison said he needs reassurance that regulatory enforcement will continue as before. The city has been reluctant to revoke or suspend liquor licenses, preferring that the state take the lead.

"If we need to take our own initiative in the city to do that, we will," Kinnison said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

40 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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