13 INVESTIGATES: Oneonta's wet-dry vote - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Oneonta's wet-dry vote

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In Oneonta and across Blount County, residents have been battling for years over whether or not to allow their communities to "go wet" or allow alcohol sales, or if they should remain "dry." In Oneonta and across Blount County, residents have been battling for years over whether or not to allow their communities to "go wet" or allow alcohol sales, or if they should remain "dry."
BLOUNT COUNTY, AL - On June 3 many important races were decided across Alabama. One in particular - a hot debate over alcohol sales in Blount County, which has been going on for years.

Two years ago, residents county-wide voted to "stay dry," continuing their long standing tradition of banning alcohol sales.

But thanks to a judge's ruling, voters in Blount County can decide whether to sell liquor locally, in their respective towns, even as the county stays dry.

And so in one city of 6,600 the fight is on to the last drop.  
 
Out of Alabama's 67 counties, 25 of them are "dry counties," where alcohol sales are prohibited unless cities inside those counties vote to go "wet." Only two of those 25 counties -- Clay and Blount -- have no interior towns allowing alcohol sales. 

That could change inside Blount County on Tuesday when the people who live inside the Oneonta city limits vote on local alcohol sales. It's a classic American battle between the forces for alcohol, who say it brings process and tax revenue, and those strongly opposed, who say it's still time to stand on principle.

RELATED STORY: Blount County citizens divided on wet/dry ballot issue (Oct. 24, 2012)

"It'd bring more crime, bring more wife beatings, bring more abuse to children. It's just endless," Oneonta barber Don Tielking told Alabama's 13.  

Tielking said he knows many of his neighbors in town are just going to St. Clair and nearby counties to buy their liquor. He says that doesn't make it right. 

Agreement can be found not far away at the First Baptist Church where Pastor Larry Gipson leads a group called "Keep Blount County Special," which encourages the county to stay dry.

"I've had to tell children that Mom and Dad aren't coming home because they've been in a car wreck. You need to try that sometime and see if that won't shake your world," he said.

Gipson and his group have placed a dramatic display in the center of town. They're steadfast in their belief that the economic benefits of alcohol don't outweigh its risks. 

"For us money is not the issue. It's the principle," he said.  

However, Lisa Wester's group "Vote Wet for Progress" has its own guiding principle.

"We've removed morality from the equation. It's simply an economic factor we're looking at," Wester said. "Our citizens are intelligent, thinking people. They can make rational decisions for themselves . They're already purchasing alcohol. We haven't kept alcohol out. We've only kept progress out."

Wester says the present law allows a very small exception: Two golf clubs in the city limits, Heritage and Limestone Springs, are allowed to sell alcohol on their premises. But the county, not the city, gets the lion's share of the funds resulting from those sales. 

The debate on "wet vs. dry" has continued in Blount County for years. In 2012, the entire county put "wet-dry to a vote," and the "dry" folks won. 

RELATED STORY: Wet votes win in 4 Alabama communities, lose in 2 (Nov. 7, 2012) 

But in the city of Oneonta, the 2012 vote went 57 percent to 43 percent to go "wet." In Blountsville, the vote to go dry was decided 715 to 706 --  separated by just nine votes. So, many folks in these towns wanted to try again. 

Under a law passed in 2009, cities in Blount, Clay and Randolph counties were prohibited from holding their own "wet-dry votes." Then in 2013 Blount County Circuit Judge Steven King said that was unconstitutional, so Tuesday's votes in Blount County can go forward, even though his ruling is being appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.

RELATED STORY: Judge rules ban on Blount County wet-dry votes unconstitutional, removes language (Nov. 1, 2013)

Pastor Glen Bynum ministers to maximum security prison inmates in neighboring St. Clair county. He also hopes to keep the city dry.  

"Where because of alcohol they killed a family member, they maimed somebody that normally they would have loved, and all these years they are living in regret," he said. 
 
Regrets can also be heard from inside the city of Oneonta too -- Regret over potential jobs that may have been lost.

"In 2007 we had a site visit from a metal stamping supplier to Honda. During the conversation about our community, the fact that we were 'dry' was discussed," Oneonta City Manager Ed Lowe told Alabama's 13. "the gentleman made the statement that his executive employees would not want to live in a place were they could not have a glass of wine or a drink with their meal." 

As recent as 2012, a large developer from Atlanta canceled development of a $2 million retail venue when they found out they could not sell alcohol, Lowe said.  

"Mr. Gipson doesn't drink and will continue not to, and that's fine, but I don't like being told I don't have that right to purchase it where I live and where I will live," said Richard Phillips of "Vote Wet for Progress."

"What God is it that doesn't want to see somebody relax? Have a Sabbath meal that might have something of an alcoholic nature? Is there a chance you're wrong about this," we asked Pastor Larry Gipson.  

"I'm not wrong about the destruction of alcohol. I am totally right, and I'm not saying this egotistically. I am saying this based on person and professional experience that nothing good comes from alcohol . It's devastating. It's evil," he answered.

And that evil, his group says, trumps whatever social benefits may come from new tax revenue.

"They say it'll fight poverty. It'll help the schools. No?" we asked Tielking.  

"No. God's the only one who gives goodies to fight poverty," he answered.

We'll be covering the wet dry votes in Oneonta and Blountsville on Tuesday and the repercussions in the months ahead. Stay with Alabama's 13 for the latest.


Do you have anything that you'd like us to investigate in depth? Click here to submit your idea to our Alabama's 13 Investigates team.

RELATED STORIES:  
House OKs bill to allow wet dry votes in city of any size (April 2, 2008) 
Blount County voting on alcohol sales in Nov. 4 election (Sept. 24, 2008) 
Blount County voters to decide future of alcohol sales (Sept. 29, 2008) 
Legislature OKs allowing small towns to go 'wet' (April 22, 2009) 

Blount County 2012 "wet vs. dry" vote
To sell alcohol or not to sell alcohol in Blount County (Sept. 14, 2012) 
Blount County citizens divided on wet/dry ballot issue (Oct. 24, 2012) 
Wet votes win in 4 Alabama communities, lose in 2 (Nov. 7, 2012) 

Oneonta fights for "right to vote" on alcohol sales
Oneonta pushes wet-dry vote, despite Blount Co. exclusion from vote (Feb. 12, 2013) 
Trial set in Oneonta wet/dry "right to vote" case (July 3, 2013)
Trial date clarified in Oneonta wet-dry "right to vote" case (July 10, 2013) 
Judge asks for more information in Oneonta wet/dry right to vote case (Sept. 6, 2013)  
Judge rules ban on Blount County wet-dry votes unconstitutional, removes language (Nov. 1, 2013) 
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