Liquor licenses are a precious commodity in Jackson and other towns across Wyoming because state law limits how many licenses each town gets.
Jackson is currently allocated 20 retail liquor licenses and could gain one more if the 2020 Census reveals the town’s population to be at least 12,500. Of the current 20 retail licenses, the town has two in hand and a third pending a legal appeal by Tastebuds LLC.
Historically, retail liquor licenses have been transferred via the private market with some selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in recent years town officials have rejected that approach in favor of awarding the licenses through a competitive public process, in which anyone can apply. When the council hands out licenses directly, most go for $1,500.
Now Jackson Town Council and town staff are revising their liquor license policies and fees, at least in part to streamline the process and timeline for receiving and processing applications for available licenses.
At a recent workshop, the Town Council heard from Town Clerk Sandy Birdyshaw, who explained that the council instructed her office in March 2019 to stop accepting applications for retail liquor licenses — which differ from bar and grill licenses and those for restaurants — until instructed otherwise. The council also requested temporarily doing the same for bar and grill liquor licenses.
Birdyshaw’s staff report outlined criteria and factors, guided by both state and local law, that the town looks at when evaluating liquor license applications. Applicants are typically given a packet of similar information. At the workshop, the town clerk also sought guidance from the council on whether they wanted to add criteria to the packets or change them in any way.
Like retail liquor licenses, state law and the town’s population dictate how many bar and grill liquor licenses the town receives. Jackson is allocated six total, with one of those returning to the town’s possession April 1.
Councilor Jim Rooks said setting criteria for awarding the licenses is a priority for him. He listed several potential factors the town and council could evaluate in determining whether to award a license, including: longevity of the business; location of the business, such as its proximity to other such operations that hold existing licenses, particularly retail licenses; the sales tax projections associated with the business; community involvement, such as whether the business hires local employees; infrastructure like parking and walkways that would aid access; and lastly, making sure that “the licenses are being used in accordance with the law,” including TIPS training.
Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen agreed with Councilor Rooks that setting criteria, even beyond what the state requires, is a good idea. He added that he also thinks “a commitment to ... the public health ordinances and the work that they do with public health, I think is important.”
Additionally, Jorgensen said, because “we’re dealing with a product that deals with addiction,” he’d be interested to know how businesses would recognize that fact.
“How do they plan on being involved with those within our community who help address that?” he said, adding that even with set criteria there will still be somewhat “of a subjective nature” to decisions about awarding licenses.
Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers shifted the discussion toward how much the town charges for liquor licenses, citing a number of public health statistics and data to demonstrate the cost of alcohol abuse to the state in terms of healthcare costs and other factors such as loss of productivity and criminal activity. She said past studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consistently show Wyoming ranking among the worst states on those measures.
“The cost to Wyoming in these cases is about $593 million, or $2.33 per drink, equaling about $1,052 to each Wyoming resident [annually],” Councilor Chambers said. “Of these overall costs ... two of every five dollars of these expenses are paid directly by federal, state and local governments.”
Meanwhile, the revenue generated by the state from alcohol sales is only $2 million annually, she said. Thus, though state statute caps the maximum amount municipalities can charge for liquor licenses — $10,500 for bar and grill licenses, $3,000 for restaurants, and $1,500 for retail — Councilor Chambers suggested the town look at raising their license fees to recoup some of those lost dollars. Currently, the town charges $1,514 for bar and grill licenses, and the same amount for restaurant licenses. Only the retail license holders in Jackson must pay the full $1,500 maximum allowed by the state.
“Why are we not talking more about these things?” Chambers asked.
Jorgensen noted that the council in the past chose to keep the cost of the bar and grill and restaurant licenses the same as retail licenses, as those licenses are more limiting than retail licenses, calling it an “equity” decision. Chambers said she’s “torn” on that issue and said that maxing out the bar and grill and restaurant licenses could be a major obstacle for people trying to open a new business.
Councilor Jonathan Schechter said he was comfortable with what was already listed in the staff report and was hesitant to place an increased burden on town staff and the council. He said taking “a deep dive” on examining liquor license fees, particularly given state constraints, might not be a productive use of time.
Vice Mayor Jorgensen moved to direct staff to not accept applications for retail or bar and grill liquor licenses until told to do so by the council, and to update the applicant packet to reflect the workshop discussion regarding criteria, seconded by Councilor Schechter. Jorgensen previously said the council should thoughtfully consider whether to increase fees in the future. Jorgensen’s motion carried unanimously.