Easier said than done

Businesses face challenges in fight to curb underage drinking

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— Charlie Noble, owner of Mahogany Ridge Brewery and Grill, said his restaurant failed an alcohol compliance check a year ago because one of the bouncers was sweeping up cigarette butts and did not see an underage drinker slip through the front door.

Greg Nealy, co-owner of Central Park Liquor, said his store failed a compliance check in September because one of his cashiers, a foreign-born employee who was returning to her home country the next day, might not have cared about checking IDs on her last day of work.

Both men were cited for the alcohol violations, as were the bouncer and the clerk. The citations catapulted them into the judicial system, where they faced fines and community service.

Both men say the violations are examples of how difficult it can be for business owners to ensure their establishments don't violate the law.

Considering the city's new penalties for establishments that sell alcohol to underage drinkers, Noble and Nealy might consider themselves lucky for receiving only fines and community service.

The Steamboat Springs City Council adopted an ordinance Tuesday night that will impose

harsher penalties on liquor license holders than any other municipality in the state. Now, businesses caught providing alcohol to underage drinkers face lengthy liquor-license suspensions and possible revocation.

"The new law is certainly strict. But I spoke with other (business owners), and we took the attitude that this is the law now, and we are going to abide by that," Nealy said.

Nealy said he is glad City Council members, who are the city's liquor-licensing authorities, took it upon themselves to change the language of the ordinance and allow more room for discretion when determining how to punish violating businesses.

The ordinance initially stated that any first offense, which included sale to a minor or a visibly intoxicated person, would result in a mandatory two- to 15-day suspension. Second and third offenses included mandatory five- to 30-day suspensions, depending on when those offenses were committed.

After discussing the original draft ordinance and hearing from community members and business owners such as Noble, City Council members changed the first-offense penalty to a zero- to 15-day suspension. The City Council also retained a fine-in-lieu clause that will allow it to determine in individual cases whether a fine is more appropriate than a license suspension.

Noble said his biggest concern with the ordinance was that City Council was not giving itself enough discretion to weigh cases individually.

"I look at my job as an employer, and it is my responsibility to provide my 29 employees with a job. I think closing down our business because one person made a mistake forces everyone else to pay the price. My other employees had no control of that," he said.

Noble thinks the passing of the ordinance is only one step that needs to be taken to combat underage drinking.

"I'd love to know where all these kids are getting this alcohol. I am surprised at how many high school kids get it, because I didn't hang out with 21-year-olds when I was 16," he said.

Noble thinks the City Council needs to continue to look at the other factors that contribute to underage drinking.

"By failing a compliance check, I am already facing a year in jail. I'm facing fines. I don't see what else I could do. It's overkill," he said. "But if I didn't handle a situation responsibly, then punish me."

City Council President Paul Strong said he was glad so many business owners such as Noble voiced their concerns during the first and second readings of the ordinance. Strong said he and other council members agreed with the business owners on several points.

"Overall, the process went well," Strong said. "I think it was a good decision that the council gave itself some discretion, because to me, having a mandatory suspension on a first offense is a little harsh."

Strong said he thought the ordinance was born out of a number of factors, including a recent compliance check conducted by police. Nine out of 11 liquor stores failed the September compliance check by selling alcohol to a minor. Also contributing to the push for the ordinance was the arrest of a 20-year-old man who was suspected of purchasing alcohol and providing it to high school students.

"A lot of things raised the community's awareness about this issue. We know the ordinance is strict, but it's an important issue. We're not citing people to get them in trouble. We cite them because we're trying to stop the problem," he said.

Although Nealy said the business community has banded together around that premise, he still thinks there are other often-unrecognized challenges faced by liquor stores and restaurants.

Nealy said his cashiers are confronted with fraudulent IDs, customers who look much older than they are and older people buying for underage drinkers on a daily basis.

"It's truly scary some of the IDs we have confiscated in the last few months," he said. "The IDs themselves are getting much, much better. I don't know where they get them, but they're very good."

Because Central Park Liquor failed its compliance check in September, the store's owners have taken great strides to comply with the city and have started internal efforts to combat the problems they face, Nealy said.

For one, he has started conducting internal compliance checks; employees are rewarded with a bonus for checking an ID or fired if they don't. Nealy said several other businesses have implemented similar programs. The store also is watching its busy parking lot with more scrutiny in hopes of identifying some of the shoulder-tapping he thinks occurs just outside the store's front doors.

"We agreed to the stringent guidelines because we mean business. We are going to go at this and make sure everyone complies every single time," he said. "We're in this for the long run."

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234 or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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