Voter role in city liquor licensing sought; 2 council members hope to reduce crime


Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon and a council colleague from Southwest Baltimore want to reduce the number of bars and liquor stores in the city by giving voters the power to abolish liquor licenses of problem establishments in their neighborhoods.

Dixon and the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a 6th District councilman, will ask the city's General Assembly delegation to introduce legislation permitting voters to regulate the number and location of liquor establishments in their precincts.

Baltimore currently has 1,600 liquor licenses, one for every 375 residents. Dixon and Handy say that number is almost three times higher than a state target set two years ago, which recommended one license for every 1,000 city residents.

The two council members, who helped shepherd the passage of a city ban on liquor billboard advertising, blame the proliferation of Baltimore liquor stores and bars for contributing to the city's high murder rate.

"We're going on the offensive on the root cause of murder and the high crime rate," said Handy, a minister and former chairman of the Citywide Liquor Coalition. "This says to all liquor license holders, 'Straighten up and fly right.' "

But the two council members may have trouble getting support from the city's General Assembly delegation. State delegates and senators support the call to reduce the number of liquor licenses in Baltimore, but question the method proposed by the council members.

Baltimore's Board of Liquor License Commissioners also welcomes the concept, but worries about the proposal.

"How do they propose putting people out of business?" Liquor Board Chairman Leonard R. Skolnik said. "The number of liquor licenses in the city are substantially down from what they used to be."

Handy is designing his bill around a similar measure used in Chicago. A South Chicago neighborhood eliminated the liquor licenses of several troubled license holders through the ballot box, which Handy said contributed to a drop in crime.

The council members noted federal statistics showing that alcohol is involved in 42 percent of all violent crimes in the nation.

"And as we lose population, we don't lose the establishments and liquor licenses," Dixon said.

A lobbyist for the Maryland State Beverage License Association said he would support a reduction of liquor licenses in the city. But Joseph A. "Jay" Schwartz said the only fair way to cut the licenses would be to eliminate them when they expire.

After the 1968 city riots, Baltimore put a moratorium on new liquor licenses for bars and liquor stores. Since then, the number of licenses has dropped 27 percent, from 2,200 to 1,600.

"When you had bars on every corner, it was OK when you had a million residents," Schwartz said. "It's tougher and tougher to make a profit now and nobody has ever looked at it in a comprehensive way."

Although new licenses in Baltimore are prohibited, license holders can sell or transfer their licenses. State Sen. George Della, a South Baltimore Democrat, helped pass legislation during the last state session forcing the license transfers to take place within 180 days or expire.

Baltimore County limits liquor licenses by population in its 15 voting districts.

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