BETHEL -- In an advisory vote Tuesday, Bethel voters supported allowing alcohol sales for the first time in four decades -- and in two binding votes, backed big increases in the city sales tax if alcohol or marijuana are ever legally sold here.
With both precincts counted in this Western Alaska hub's municipal election, most voters indicated they supported having a liquor store in town, with 57 percent saying they would want the City Council to back a liquor store application. They rejected the notion of a bar, with 61 percent voting "no" on that question. They also narrowly opposed liquor sales at a restaurant as well as other kinds of liquor licenses, including a club license.
Also on the ballot: four council seats, with voters picking their favorites from a slate of six candidates. Incumbent Mark Springer trailed the field and appears to have lost his bid for another two-year term. Incumbent Rick Robb – the current mayor, a position selected by council members – led the field with 475 votes, followed by incumbent Leif Albertson with 437, challenger Nikki Hoffman with 425 and newcomer candidate Alisha Welch with 417. Another newcomer, Jason Smith, received 402 votes and Springer collected 318. Questioned and absentee ballots still must be counted.
The alcohol question, which dates back more than 50 years in Bethel, has been simmering again since March. That's when Bethel Native Corp. proposed a liquor store to use some of the empty space in its $20 million retail complex across from the Native-run hospital, whose leaders are among the prominent opponents. The rural grocery chain that leased the bulk of the Kipusvik complex went bankrupt.
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in July rejected the city's protest of the Native corporation's application to open Bethel Spirits. But the ABC Board also didn't approve the liquor license. The board is coming to Bethel Oct. 22 to hear directly from residents.
The City Council already has held a series of public hearings but wanted to ensure that residents reluctant to testify publicly had a say. With Tuesday's ballot, the council -- and the ABC board -- now have a fresh sense of community will, an update to the last advisory vote on alcohol in 2010.
About 22 percent of the city's 3,640 registered voters cast ballots, not counting absentee votes.
On the binding tax propositions, voters answered clearly in favor. More than 63 percent voted to raise the current sales tax base of 6 percent to 12 percent on alcohol. An even bigger proportion, almost 70 percent, agreed to a 15 percent tax on marijuana in the event of legal sales.
"Bethel's big enough and I think it would be fine," said Suzanne Agathluk, 31, after voting in favor of various options for sales. The city of about 6,300 voted in 2009 to go wet, but still has no legal sales, a unique status in Alaska. People who want to drink often legally order alcohol from stores in Anchorage that is then flown in – or get it illegally from bootleggers, said Agathluk, who also voted for the young slate of newcomer candidates.
"Everybody already orders anyway," she said. "There's so many bootleggers and people wasting all their money on bootleggers. Might as well have a liquor store and have it taxed and have money put into the city."
But others, including Catholic priests worried about villagers stocking up in Bethel, said they voted against alcohol sales.
"Every community in this delta, since I've been a kid, alcohol problems are the No. 1 issue in every community," said John Wallace, 51, who has lived most of his life in Bethel. The argument for legal sales because alcohol already is here doesn't make sense to him, he said. While other rural towns including Nome, Kotzebue and Dillingham allow legal sales, none are the hubs for as many villages and people as Bethel, Wallace said.
Kotzebue's system, with a city-owned-and-run liquor store operating under strict rules, would be the only configuration that could bring in enough money to cover the increased need for social services, health care and law enforcement, he said.
Kotzebue clears $1 million a year from its package store, money that has gone toward community events, a teen center, the small boat harbor and other improvements, according to Kotzebue city officials.
Bethel city leaders have been investigating Kotzebue's system, even though voters weren't asked Tuesday whether they favored a city-run store. Council members were divided over what such a vote would have meant, council member Zach Fansler said Monday at a forum on alcohol issues. Some council members wanted voters to consider a city-owned store in Bethel as it is now legally wet. But other Alaska cities that run their own stores are under more restrictive local option rules and aren't trying to compete with private stores. The question of a city store seemed too confusing for now, said Fansler, whose seat is not up this year.
Of the candidates, Robb, Welch and Hoffman support legal liquor sales, and Smith said he would follow the voters' will. Springer and Albertson have said they don't support liquor sales.
Bethel's last advisory vote on alcohol was in 2010, and then, in a similar series of ballot questions, residents rejected every configuration of alcohol sales, some of them overwhelmingly. The city has been struggling with the question of alcohol sales since 1960.