Columbia County commissioners had a tough choice this past week.
They could follow the letter of the county's alcoholic beverage ordinance and shut down the Finish Line Cafe for failing to hit the prescribed ratio of food-to-alcohol sales.
Or, they could recognize the ambiguity in the law, renew the business' license and then work on cleaning up the ordinance for next year.
Commissioners took the latter course --and it was the right one. Now they'll need to follow through.
At issue was a surprise audit of the Finish Line Cafe, which missed by 5 percent the requirement that food makes up at least 50 percent of all "sales." The law is designed to ensure alcoholic beverages are served in restaurants, not just bars.
The restaurant's own audit, however, shows food sales exceeded the mandate by about 3 percent, claims Bill Williams, an attorney representing Finish Line owner Angie Bridges. He told commissioners the county's audit was skewed by including revenue from coin-operated games, which he argues doesn't meet the state's legal definition of a "sale."
Commissioners will now make that language less ambiguous, though county attorney Doug Batchelor and Planning Director Jeff Browning, perhaps correctly, maintain that the definition of "sale" isn't as unclear as Williams' contends.
But here is the fix that's really needed. Under the ordinance, the only punishment for failing to meet the rarely audited food-to-alcohol sales ratio is the death penalty: revocation of the alcohol license. Yet if a business is caught selling alcohol to a minor, for example -- a far worse offense -- they're often given probation a couple of times before the license is finally yanked.
That's the right way to fix the ratio question, too. Once that's done, commissioners should then take the next step to crack down on enforcement because then no restaurateur can any longer claim they don't understand.
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