Bar fees cut ?slipped by´ county

URBANA - Eleven months ago, the Champaign County Board approved an updated liquor ordinance that is probably best remembered for avoiding a controversial exotic- dancing issue.
But county tavern owners will remember the ordinance for another reason: For most of them, it cut their annual liquor license fee roughly in half - to a level about one-quarter to one-half of what comparable tavern owners must pay in Urbana or Champaign.
For example, the owners of the Shamrock in unincorporated Urbana and the Pink House near Ogden went from paying $1,400 annually in 2001 to $700 in 2002 for a new Class A2 liquor license.
Two county bar owners say they warned county board members before the vote that the revised ordinance would cost the county thousands of dollars. Those warnings were ignored, they say.
Ike Mapson, owner of the Malibu Bay Lounge in unincorporated Urbana, said he talked with county board Chairwoman Patricia Avery, D-Champaign, before the vote and told her the county was going to lose money.
?I don't know whether they didn't care or just neglected it,? said Mapson. ?They do what they want to do. They certainly were aware.?
?This kind of slipped through,? said Charlie Warmbrunn, owner of the Shamrock, a tavern at 1702 N. Cunningham Ave., unincorporated Urbana. ?I sent them all a letter (warning about the fee decrease), but evidently they ignored it.?
Both bar owners said lowered fees were not something county bar owners lobbied for.
The reduction in the liquor license fees makes operating a county tavern a relative bargain compared with the cities of Ur-bana and Champaign. Instead of $700, a comparable tavern liquor license would cost $3,579 in Urbana and $1,500 in Champaign. In Champaign, there is an additional fee of $5 for every person over 150 total occupancy, up to a maximum fee of $2,800. Plus, if a bar in Champaign wants to sell package goods, there's an additional $300 fee.
A liquor license to sell all kinds of package goods, such as at a liquor store, costs $740 in the county, compared to $2,400 in Champaign and $3,491 in Urbana. The county ordinance increased this fee by $200 with the update.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden, whose office collects liquor license fees, said county income from liquor licenses went from $23,550 in 2001, before the revision, to $17,860 in 2002 after the updated ordinance was approved.
Shelden said he talked with Mapson before the county board vote and conveyed to Assistant State's Attorney Charisma Tan-Sanchez, who drafted the revised ordinance, that the county would lose liquor license fee income with the revised ordinance. Tan-Sanchez told him county board members were aware of the financial ramifications, he said.
Tan-Sanchez could not be reached for comment.
?The bar owners I talked to were plenty comfortable with (liquor license fees) staying the same or even going up a little,? Shelden said. ?I think making it comparable with Champaign-Urbana would be a good idea. It seems reasonable that it should be more than $700.?
After The News-Gazette inquired about the issue, county board Chairwoman Patricia Avery, D-Champaign, said the lowered fees were clearly a mistake. She vowed that the county board will revise them upward next month.
?I could just scream,? Avery said. ?After all of the rewrites, it did not get in print the way we intended.?
Avery said county liquor licenses expire May 31, and she wants a revised fee schedule to be approved next month by the county board.
?There will be a readjustment,? she said ?They found a loophole. I'm looking into what Champaign and Urbana are doing. I'll find some way to make it fair.?
Avery said she did not recall the conversation with Mapson where he said he warned her beforehand the county would lose money with the revised ordinance. ?I'm not saying he didn't say that,? she added. ?It's been some time ago.?
She said she does remember Warmbrunn's letter, but thought it came after the county board's May 21, 2002, vote. But the letter was dated May 15, 2002.
The confusion about the fee prices apparently arose out of a liquor subcommittee created by the county board's Environment and Land Use Committee.
Barbara Wysocki, D-Urbana, who chaired the subcommittee, said bar owners indicated they disliked having to go to the county board for approval of a special $50 license every time they wanted to have an outdoor event on their property.
The subcommittee eventually drew up license categories where bar owners, as part of their license, could have six such special events without additional county board approval. This tavern license cost $1,400 for a tavern with more than 1,200 square feet of space and $850 for a tavern with less than 1,200 square feet.
But the subcommittee also allowed bar owners to purchase a cheaper liquor license without preapproval of any outdoor events. For a larger bar, the fee was $700 and for a smaller bar, the fee was $450.
The ordinance allowed bar owners to obtain approval of a single special event for $50, though that meant going back to the county board for approval.
Not surprisingly, 12 of the county's 14 bar owners opted for the cheaper license and saw their liquor license fees slashed.
Warmbrunn, owner of the Shamrock, said county board members were warned at least twice that the ordinance language was faulty, in February and May 2002.
Warmbrunn's most explicit warning came in a May 15, 2002, letter to county board members. In it, he explains that the A-2 and B-2 liquor licenses, the cheaper licenses for bar owners, were originally intended by the subcommittee to be a supplementary outdoor license for bars that sell alcohol outside their premises, like TK Wendl's in unincorporated Urbana, which has softball fields.
In other words, the intent of the bar owners working with the county board was to require a bar like TK Wendl's to pay $2,100 for liquor licenses for indoors and outdoors, while most bars would continue to pay $1,400.
That intent got lost in the drafting of the ordinance, Warmbrunn said, and county board members ignored his and other bar owners' warnings to that effect.
?THE COUNTY WOULD CERTAINLY LOSE MONEY IF ALL APPLICANTS CHOSE TO APPLY FOR THE CLASS A2 OR CLASS B2 LICENSE,? Warmbrunn wrote in his letter, in all capital letters.
Warmbrunn said he delivered the letter to the county board office and was assured that copies would be made and put in the mailboxes of each county board member.
The biggest public controversy about the liquor issue involved whether the county would implement strict new regulations for exotic dancing, a move that would have affected the Malibu Bay Lounge. The final ordinance dropped any regulation of exotic or nude dancing.
Ralph Langenheim, chairman of the Environment and Land Use Committee, said he was not aware of the lowered fees when the ordinance revision was approved by his committee and then the county board.
?I do not remember that fee schedule being the topic of any internal debate,? he said. ?It sort of slipped by. Given the current financial situation of the county, I would guess these (liquor license) fees are an obvious target for increase.?
The county's general corporate fund incurred a $1 million deficit in fiscal 2002. The deficit was covered with cash reserves.

You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or by e-mail at mmonson@news-gazette.com.

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