esidents in unincorporated Effingham County may get the chance next year to vote on whether they want to have liquor by the drink sold in restaurants.
County commissioners approved trying to get a potential referendum on the February presidential preference ballot.
But early voting for the primary begins Dec. 26, and any issues on the ballot must be submitted no later than 29 days before voting begins.
“Now is the time to allow citizens the right to vote,” said Charlie Kea of the Community Progress Council of Effingham, a group that is pushing for a referendum on liquor by the drink in full-service restaurants. “All we seek is chance to bring this to a vote. We are not asking you to take a stand. We are asking you to allow us to have a vote.”
By the group’s definition, a full-service restaurant is licensed to pour alcohol by the drink and requires 50 percent of its receipts through food sales.
“We are not for package stores or open bars,” Kea said.
The CPCE has been conducting a door-to-door campaign to gauge support for the measure, and Kea said their results have been astounding. He said they have nearly 1,400 signatures on a petition and 98 percent of the people they have approached have responded favorably.
“It is overwhelming support we have found,” he said. “We have had people thank us for taking up the cause. All the families want quality restaurants in the community. We only want family-style restaurants.”
Kea said such establishments in Effingham could help keep sales tax revenues in the county and not allow that money to be spent elsewhere.
“For years, our citizens have gone to Bulloch or Chatham and have dined at these restaurants,” he said. “It would be hard to find an individual who has not visited one of these restaurants. We want to keep our tax dollars.”
Brooke Dominey said she was drawn to Effingham because of the reputation of its schools and enjoys its tight-knit atmosphere.
“It was not planned for such a fast growth,” she said. “It would not hurt to spend your own dollars in your own community.”
Commissioner Myra Lewis is not in favor of liquor by the drink sales but isn’t opposed to bringing the issue to a vote.
“I share your dream of tax relief,” she said.
Assistant county attorney Eric Gotwalt issued some concerns over the timing of the request for the referendum. The ballot and language for it are due to be sent to Georgia Secretary of State’s office for the February primary.
The county may have to provide two separate ballots for a vote in February, meaning people would have to get in line twice to vote. Gotwalt said pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice and the county is going to be without someone to pull that data together
Low turnout numbers for the 2006 elections worried Lewis, who asked if it could be put on the general election ballot.
“We want the pulse of the people,” she said.
Murray Marshall said the group originally thought the presidential preference primary in February would have significant turnout, which is why it pushed to get it done.
“If it’s too cumbersome, then we don’t need to move forward until November,” he said. “We want it to work smoothly so we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Marshall also worried that if the county doesn’t act soon enough, such restaurants will set up near the intersection of I-95 and Highway 21 and may consider Effingham’s population centers too close by to open another location there.
“If we can move quickly, we can get them up here in Effingham County and the benefits, whatever the taxes are, benefit Effingham County,” he said.
A local ordinance cannot be less restrictive than the state model, but it can be more restrictive.
“I think there is some misconception about state laws about the activity in question,” Commissioner Hubert Sapp said “We’re not putting anything in place.”
But some residents appear to be ready to vote on the measure.
“It’s time for the citizens of Effingham County to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century,” said Charles Odatt.