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Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 9:08am

Hundreds Could Lose Service Jobs in Savannah

A widening crackdown on alcohol-selling businesses in Savannah could result in hundreds of service industry workers losing their jobs, industry and city representatives said Monday.

Owners and operators of bars, restaurants, package stores and groceries expressed their frustration at the proposals at a public meeting that drew a crowd of about 100 people at the Civic Center.

Under the latest version of a local ordinance that's been in the works since June, any worker who serves alcohol in Savannah would be required to have a city-approved license.

The license would be subject to a criminal background check that an industry representative said could eliminate about 20% of the workforce in businesses that already are subject to a 50% turnover.

A city representative said about 5,000 to 6,000 workers could be required to have a license under the proposal. If those estimates are correct, the city could lose at least 1,000 jobs.

The proposal started out as an initiative to combat underage drinking at Savannah bars and nightclubs. But it since has widened to include restaurants, package stores, groceries -- and possibly more -- at a time when the economy already has imperiled many service jobs.

'Underestimated the Scope'

Business owners and managers showed up to voice their opinions in hopes of reshaping the ordiance at a public meeting.

Key refrains included how many workers the ordinance would affect and who should be punished for underage drinking violations.

"If you take everyone who works at a Seven-Eleven, everyone who works at Sam's and Wal-Mart, everyone who puts their hands on a bottle, I'd say you're talking at least 10,000 people," said George Grady, of Chugger's restaurant and bar on Mall Blvd. "You don't punish [car dealer] Dan Vaden when someone gets a D.U.I."

City Revenue Director Buddy Clay led the meeting. He explained that only workers who pour alcohol -- including bartenders, certain restaurant workers and their managers -- would be subject to the license and the background check. Anyone who sells alcohol -- including clerks at package, grocery and convenience stores -- would be subject to mandatory training, but not the licensure and background check.

That still didn't satisfy Trina Brown of The Rail pub on Congress Street, who called the background checks and license requirement an overregulatory and privacy-violating intrusion of government.

"The fact is that we have people in Savannah who have records and they have to work somewhere," said Brown. "And especially if they do their job very well, I want to protect their security in a job."

Michael Vaquer, a lobbyist for the Georgia Restaurant Association, drew sustained applause when he called on city officials to limit the background check requirement and extend the license start-up time.

"We think the city has underestimated the scope of the people who will have to be required to pass the criminal background check," said Vaquer. "You must not risk the effects of the ordinance imploding on its own weight."

Vaquer suggested that the background check be limited to alcohol violations. It currently includes other infractions. He suggested that current workers be grandfathered in. Currently they are not. And he also suggested that businesses be given more than the ordinance's 240 days to implement the license and training requirements.

At Monday's meeting, city officials did not make clear whether the proposals would affect non-profit organizations that use volunteers to serve alcohol at special events, such as fundraisers; or small businesses that hire extra help for limited periods of time, such as during the city's beer- and profit-swilled St. Patrick's Day festivities.

'Trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer.'

Savannah's crackdown on alcohol-selling establishments began with concerns on City Council about underage drinking violations, which are enforced by the Savannah-Chatham Police Department.

But no member of City Council attended Monday's public meeting nor did any representative from the police department. The only two public officials present at the meeting were Clay and Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill.

At the most previous meeting of City Council several weeks ago, however, some members expressed their frustration that the widening crackdown has gone too far.

"Let's not forget the intent," said Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson. "We're trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer."

At Monday's public forum, Clay and Morrill stressed that the proposal is subject to change based on public input.

"We don't have a perfect ordinance," said Clay. "That's why we're here tonight. We want to tweak it."

City Council members could approve the ever-changing plans on Thursday, the third time the ordinance has come before the council.

If council members approve the ordinance on Thursday, they'd have to vote on it one more time, perhaps in two weeks, before it goes into effect. If council members again reject it on Thursday, they would have to give city staff direction as to what to do.