UPDATE: Missouri keeps only 5 agents to check 12,000 liquor licenses

Monday, June 14, 2010 | 7:20 p.m. CDT; updated 8:18 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 15, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — State budget cuts that devastated the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control have raised concern from local law agencies, business owners and those who work to prevent teenage drinking.

After budget cuts that took effect last week, the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control's budget dropped from $2.8 million to $1.7 million, and the number of employees was reduced from 36 to 19. Seventeen liquor control agents lost their jobs, leaving only five agents to monitor more than 12,000 liquor license holders.

Local law officers will now be required to enforce most liquor laws, including checking licenses and preventing the sale of liquor to minors, The Kansas City Star reported Monday. The processing of license applications will be centralized in Jefferson City.

"The locals can handle the criminal enforcement matters," said Mike O'Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety. "Alcohol and Tobacco Control will continue to do what it's been doing: regulatory and administrative action on licenses. That's ATC's chief function."

Mike Boland, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Missouri, said the reductions have cut a "gaping hole in the enforcement of alcohol laws" that could hinder efforts to stop underage drinking.

Federal grants that went to the state compliance checks on sales to minors will be reallocated to police and sheriff's departments.

"This is going to put more on local law enforcement, and that's not necessarily a good thing, but everyone knows we don't have the funds to continue the way we were before," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We can only enforce what we can afford to enforce."

Critics say the budget cuts mean already overburdened local law agencies will have to do more.

"We've foisted all this responsibility on the shoulders of local law enforcement without training, funding or jurisdiction," said Rep. Jeff Roorda, a Barnhart Democrat and a former police chief. "That's a big problem."

Kansas City Police Sgt. Brad Dumit, supervisor of the department's vice section, said his four detectives will now have to enforce liquor laws, while also investigating prostitution, human trafficking and illegal gambling.

And some businesses owners worry that the changes will mean longer waits to get liquor licenses approved or renewed.

Earlier cutbacks at liquor control increased the processing time for a license application from 10 days to 30 or 40 days, said Dick Bryant, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in licensing hotels, restaurants and bars.

He said more delays mean lost revenue for businesses and will reward those who sell liquor without getting proper licenses.

But O'Connell said processing times aren't expected to change much because of the reorganization, and many checks remain in place to catch unscrupulous vendors.

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