Liquor Control Not As Effective Following Budget Cuts

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COLUMBIA - When bars sell alcohol to minors, Missouri's Alcohol and Tobacco Control, commonly called "liquor control," is responsible for enforcing punishments, but bar owners around Columbia aren't sure of what the agency does.

"I have no clue," Marshal Janish, Manager for The Fieldhouse and Willie's said. "I've maybe seen them once in the last year."

"I honestly don't know exactly how they operate," Julie Rader, Owner of Bengals said. "I honestly don't know what to tell you with that."

Some owners also confused police operations with ATC ones.

"They do stings," Victor Shipley, general manager of Harpo's said. "They conduct visits. They do everything the police do as well in regards to not only underage drinking but proper opening and closing procedures."

But when KOMU 8 News asked how often the ATC does spot inspections, the agency responded, "The ATC does not conduct alcohol sale compliance checks."

According to the statement, that job is left up to the local police.

Sgt. Candy Cornman of the Columbia Police Department explained the process.

"We take a person that is under the age of 21, we send them into an establishment and have them attempt to purchase alcohol," Corman said.

Corman said the police gets its volunteers from schools around the city or family members of officers.

A report of all regulatory action enforced by the ATC in Boone County from August 2010 to September 2013 shows that Bengals and The Fieldhouse have by far the most minor realted violations from 2010-2012 with 15 each. Quinton's Bar and Deli was third with six. Now-closed Peppers The Nightclub had eight violations, but none were related to underage drinking.

The numbers don't correlate to minor in possession (MIP) cases, but that's because violations only happen when the police conduct sting operations since there has to be proof the bar sold to a minor, not just that they were holding an alcoholic drink.

The enforcement brings up many questions, including why punishments for Bengals stayed the same despite consistent infractions, and why all cases against The Fieldhouse more than a year old are still pending.

Some bars that KOMU 8 News found to have had multiple MIPs given out there weren't on the report at all, including Campus Bar and Grill and 10 Below.

When asked for an on-camera interview, Gene Lacy, the state supervisor of the ATC refused, as did Jerry Lee, the director of Public Safety who oversees the ATC. Later, Mike O'Connell--who refused to go on camera for this story despite the fact he earns taxpayer money to act as the public information officer for the Department of Public Health--issued a written response to questions from KOMU 8 News, but failed to answer questions specifically addressing why the department hadn't processed reports from more than a year ago.

He also failed to answer questions about how budget cuts, which left the department with only five agents to handle more than 14,000 liquor licenses, are hurting its effectiveness.

"Common sense would say maybe not enough agents in the field to achieve the level of enforcement that maybe publicly people want to have," Shipley said.

Cornman said she thinks a city committe may have to pick up the state's shortcomings.

"Our hope is, due to the Subance Abuse Advisory Comission system, that we establish a point system wherein the more points you acrue, you can run the risk of having your establishment closed down for 24, 48 hours, etc."

But Dan Rader, a manager at Bengals and son of the current owners, was appointed by the city council to be on that commission and is the only bar manager or owner on it.

The full list names on the comission and its responsibilities can be found here.

Shipley recommends a similar system of increasing punishment for each violation.

"There needs to be some progression whether it's education or citation or fining, but there needs to be some progression we think to eliminate people from the system that just aren't going to imply."

With call for more enforcement and MIP numbers consistent for the past three years, it's not surprising bar owners aren't sure what the ATC does.