COLUMBIA — Columbia's bars and restaurants are selling alcohol to minors at a greater rate than the state average, according to a string of recent police checks.
That has the city's Substance Abuse Advisory Commission worried, especially as economic troubles threaten funding of compliance enforcement.
But the group has a proposal it thinks will work: using alcohol violation fines to fund the work police do to keep alcohol sales legal.
Since the Columbia Police Department's compliance checks program started in May, 143 alcohol-selling establishments have been visited. Forty-eight percent of those have sold alcohol to minors working in coordination with police officers, 8 percentage points higher than Missouri's state average.
The department received about $38,000 in grant money for alcohol enforcement programs from the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Columbia's Youth Community Coalition and MU's Wellness Resource Center, Officer Tim Thomason said. About 75 percent of that money goes to alcohol compliance checks, he said.
The problem is that all of these grants will expire next year.
"If the grant money goes away, there goes our opportunity to do compliance checks," Thomason said. "Ultimately, the goal is that you go out there and nobody fails. (The commission's funding plan) isn't about us making money off these fines to make our budget bigger. It wouldn't change the rules. We'll still play the game how we do."
Thomason said he expects the program to get some money through grant renewals, but it depends on the impact the economy has on next year's budgets.
Before the grants, occasional compliance checks were done by the state's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. However, with about 30 agents responsible for the whole state, the checks were not frequent enough to really make a difference, Thomason said.
Michael Yoakum, chair of the Substance Abuse Advisory Commission, said he thinks it's imperative that local efforts are well-supported.
"The state is severely under-funded and under-staffed. There's no way that the statewide compliance checks would even do much in this community," he said. "If we let (the program) cease, we're not holding people accountable."
Yoakum and the other commissioners drafted a memo to the City Council in November asking it to consider funneling alcohol compliance fines back into funding compliance enforcement.
The average fine is about $150, Thomason said. With 260 liquor-selling establishments in Columbia, fines could generate $13,000 to $15,000 to fund compliance checks every year, he said. Right now, money from those fines goes into a general city fund.
To conduct the checks, police officers work with underage individuals who are paid hourly. Those participants must be 18 or 19 years old and not have any alcohol-related offenses on their record, Thomason said. The minors use their own underage I.D. to try to buy alcohol and must answer age-related questions honestly. Out of the 69 businesses that failed, 29 actually checked the minor's I.D. and still sold the person alcohol.
To some, like Mayor Darwin Hindman, these efforts seem like a drop in the bucket of underage drinking.
"It will always be a kind of cat and mouse game," Hindman said. "I doubt we'll ever find a solution that will eliminate (underage drinking), but we don't want to be on the losing end of that, so we need to deal with it now."
Thomason said he thinks Columbia's failure rate should be much lower than the state average of 40 percent since it's common knowledge that there is extensive underage drinking in a college town.
"The knowledge base should be there that the university brings a lot of people to our city and a majority of university students are under the age of 21," he said. "The staff should be more vigilant in knowing that there are lots more underage people trying to buy alcohol."
Hindman said the commission's funding idea has potential but that he's not ready to form a firm opinion yet.
"I like the idea of having violators fund the cost of policing the situation," he said. "On the other hand, I have some concern about earmarking funds like that... I think I would like to see a more detailed report before I would take a position on the issue."
The commission is working on just such a report, Yoakum said.
"We have an advisory role," he said. "Our job is to make sure (the city) knows that it's a big enough problem, and then we let them fund it in the way they think is best."
The report will include detailed numbers and addresses of businesses that sold alcohol to minors, as well as comparisons to other municipalities and cities. It will be ready by the first of the year, Yoakum said.
In the hopes of deterring future failed checks, the city has produced videos about bar safety and compliance checks, which will be mailed on DVD to all businesses with a liquor license in Columbia, Thomason said.
"The true solution to the problem is both education and enforcement," he said. "We're trying to cover both of those."