Bethel Council Nixes City-Run Liquor Store Vote in October

Bethel voters will not have the option to go into local option this October and open a city-run store like Kotzebue, pictured above. Photo by City of Kotzebue, shared via kyuk.org.
Bethel voters will not have the option to go into local option this October and open a city-run store like Kotzebue, pictured above. Photo by City of Kotzebue, shared via kyuk.org.

There will not be a vote this October for Bethel to go into local option status and pursue opening a city-run liquor store. The Bethel City Council by a vote of five to one rejected sending the vote to citizens.

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Council member Chuck Herman cast the only vote in support, citing the ability for more local control and the opportunities for partnering with villages that are possible with a version of local option.

“We can work together with them as a community and figure out what regulations and restrictions they need so we’re not providing a massive space for importation to flow straight down the river. This would be medium that I personally think would be the best for the Delta as a whole. The people in the city would be able to purchase alcohol from the store and they would not feel like a criminal going into the city-run store,” said Herman.

Bethel left local option in 2009 and citizens voted again in 2010 to stay out while still rejecting local sales. That developed a liquor status that allows for unlimited importations and no local sales.

Vice Mayor Leif Albertson said that’s agreeable for many.

“That was something that a lot of people felt they could live with. Moving forward, we don’t know what the state’s going to allow us to do. I think for many of use, before we’d make what I’d consider a drastic decision to go into local option, I think it’s important to know what our options are. And we’d have a better idea after the advisory vote, after we hear from the ABC Board,” said Albertson.

The city is seeking an appeal of the state liquor board’s rejection of their formal protest of Bethel Spirits application, which is still pushing for the first liquor store in Bethel in four decades. The Alaska Commercial Company is also applying to open a liquor store.

Among the many moving pieces, the Council will send Councilmember Zach Fansler to the next ABC board meeting in September in Kotzebue. The board will holding a hearing in Bethel in October. That’s the same month as the advisory vote.

And on that ballot, Bethel voters decide whether to tax future marijuana sales at 15 percent.

The council passed an amendment to raise it from 12 to 15 percent sales tax. Mayor Rick Robb opposed the higher rate.

“We’d be in danger of driving a legal product to being an illegal produce. Instead of getting 15 percent, we’d get zero percent and we also continue with crime and the associated economic crime that comes with illegal drug crime,” said Robb.

The council could lower it in the future without putting it to citizens in a public election.

Leading up to Alaska’s first legal marijuana sales in 2016, municipalities have options for regulating the commercial industry. And there will be local option provisions that could opt Bethel out of local sales or manufacturing, but the city hasn’t taken that up.

The city can also implement an excise tax, which doesn’t need to be approved by voters.

The council also established a marijuana advisory committee to run from September of this year through the start of 2017. The panel is tasked with making marijuana recommendations to the council.