BY TERRI HARBER
The argument isn't valid that Baker City's liquor license application process mirrors that of the state's, according to an official with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Baker City Councilor Beverly Calder referred to the work done by the two agencies as "duplicative" during the April 24 council meeting. She was arguing against proposed rate increases for the police department to process liquor license applications and provide the OLCC with a recommendation about the applicants.
The OLCC and Baker City both use the Law Enforcement Data Center but that's where the similarity ends, said Farshad Allahdadi, the licensing director for the state agency.
Typically there isn't a great deal of overlap between the state and local processes.
"Local government bodies or codes divisions may have access to more information than we have," he said.
The OLCC itself doesn't have access to criminal history outside of Oregon but when local governments turn up other information about an applicant from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, "we could use it if it's provided to us," Allahdadi said.
He and Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner point out that local law enforcement agencies have access to a variety of records networks. The databases could be regional, national or even international depending on the size of the municipality being served.
Local law enforcement also has reports called in to the area's emergency dispatch center about a person or a situation in which that person was involved.
That includes incidents at businesses or places of employment.
"We're spread very thin in the eastern part of the state," Allahdadi explained. "We have a seasoned staff but funding is difficult. We do with what we have."
Bend is the regional field office for Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler counties.
State officials sometimes partner with local law enforcement to determine whether license holders are in compliance. Information contained in local police reports can be important when applicants seek license renewals.
Most OLCC investigations take four to eight weeks to complete and could take longer if the business site has had problems with OLCC, police or neighbors; the applicant has a criminal history or provided false information; or, the applicant has a history of substance abuse, according to the state's website.
Local governments have 45 days to complete their investigations and to send those final recommendations to the OLCC.
Many local governments across the state, including Baker City, look at applicants' feasibility and provide the OLCC with recommendations.
It's not the first city considering substantially raising its cost to applicants since budgets have become tighter for government at all levels. In 2010, the city of LaGrande raised its application fee from $15 to $100, and created a $35 fee for renewals, changes in ownership and privileges, and temporary and special events. The $15 charge had been in place for at least 20 years.
Baker City businesses applying for liquor licenses could see fees for new applications rise from $10 to $75 for new applications and $50 for change of ownership.
Maximum prices allowed by the state for local governments to charge are $100 for a new application; $75 for change in ownership, location or privilege; and $35 for renewal or temporary privileges.
The research is done with an eye on the calendar as police department employees deal with other matters simultaneously. Each application for a liquor license takes about three hours of staff time to research and process, Lohner said.
Some localities don't conduct traditional law enforcement investigations.
Code enforcement or more generalized government administrators might do the research before elected officials vote on whether to recommend the applicant for the license.
Some government bodies might simply ask the applicant questions and then take a vote.
Baker City Councilors vote on whether to recommend applicants after the police department completes its research. The councilors usually don't spend a great deal of time discussing the licenses during meetings unless the applicant has been the source of license-related controversy or generates a high level of community interest.
Allahdadi said disagreements between the OLCC and various local governments often spring from misunderstandings about the state's licensing criteria.
Local officials around Oregon might try to stop someone from receiving a liquor license by saying their business location isn't properly zoned for the type of activities. Zoning doesn't play a part in the state's decision about the license.
Whether a business in that situation could operate would be up to local officials, not the OLCC.
And "suspicions aren't enough," he emphasized.
"In other parts of the country, people don't get liquor licenses until they qualify for them," Allahdadi said. "In Oregon it's more of a right unless we find a reason not to give it to you."
That shift in perspective can prove "troubling for some people to grasp."
The OLCC tries to help license holders operate within the law if they are having trouble following the rules. More employee training, limiting hours of alcohol sales or overall operations, or ordering a business shut down for a specific amount of time are ways to avoid loss of license.
"We know our communities and can offer insight," Lohner said of local officials, including police, when it comes to liquor licensing. "Our role is to make sure the voice of the community is heard."
The second reading of ordinance No. 3313 is scheduled to be brought to the councilors during their next regular meeting on Tuesday, May 8. Specific price increases for liquor license applications will be part of a wider-ranging fees ordinance, ordinance No. 3676.