A recent alcohol compliance check conducted by Steamboat Springs police is evidence that a renewed emphasis on preventing underage drinking is working.
The police department, the City Council and business owners should be applauded for their efforts to curb this community problem. At the same time, now isn't the time to relax -- regular enforcement and stiffer punishments for violators clearly have had an impact.
On May 5, police conducted a compliance check at 13 businesses. In the checks, underage residents try to purchase alcohol. In this case, 12 of 13 businesses did what they were supposed to do -- they asked for identification and refused to sell to the minors.
That easily was the best success rate the city has seen in such compliance checks in the past year. In December, six of 16 businesses failed, and in September, nine of 11 businesses failed.
It was the September compliance check that prompted the city to change the way it handles such violations. Previously, business owners and store clerks were cited when a business failed a compliance check, and their cases worked through the judicial system. Generally, they paid fines of $500 or less.
But after the high September failure rate, the City Council passed an ordinance creating an administrative hearing process. Businesses that fail compliance checks now must appear before the City Council, the city's liquor licensing authority. At the hearings, the council can suspend or revoke liquor licenses, penalties that are much tougher than the punishment businesses faced in the judicial system.
The six businesses that failed the December checks had their licenses suspended for one to three days. Cantina was given a one-day suspension with four days held in abeyance. The restaurant's owners decided not to sell alcohol for the full five days.
Suspension lengths are increased for second and third offenses.
Many of the businesses think the increased penalties are unfair. They argue that even when they do everything right, they are being held accountable for something they ultimately can't control -- a choice an employee is going to make. A license suspension for just one day can cost a business thousands of dollars.
We understand those concerns. But we also think that stiffer penalties reinforce the importance of hiring and training employees to follow the law in every case.
The September compliance check raised awareness of this problem and prompted the City Council to act. The handling of the December failures sent the message that the City Council was serious. And the most recent compliance check is proof that businesses have gotten the message.
We're not naÃive enough to think that new ordinances and more law enforcement is going to stop underage drinking. But it is reasonable for the community to expect liquor stores, bars and restaurants to ask for identification before selling alcohol.
Clearly, the police department's compliance check program, together with the City Council's tougher stance on violators, is working. We urge them to keep it up.