Mass. alcohol inspectors carrying big licensee caseloads

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Shelves are filled with bottles of liquor at a 21st Amendment liquor store in Carmel, Ind., Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. Indiana will keep the distinction of being the last state with a “blue law” banning Sunday carry-out alcohol sales after the sponsor of a bill that would have lifted the ban said Tuesday, 24 the […]

BOSTON (SHNS) – Staffing at the state’s alcohol regulating agency has failed to keep up with the proliferation of new drinking establishments over the past several years, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg told lawmakers on Tuesday, asking them for increased funding.

Around the country there are typically 261 licensees per alcohol inspector, but in the Bay State there are 800 licensees per inspector, Goldberg told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees.

The Brookline Democrat asked lawmakers to give the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission $3.69 million in fiscal 2019, which is more than the $3.33 million that Gov. Charlie Baker recommended.

Over the past decade the number of licenses and permits processed by the ABCC has grown to 32,000, up from 19,000, and the number of annual inspections has grown to more than 8,000, up from 6,800, according to the treasurer. There are about 12,000 drinking establishments and package stores subject to inspections, according to the treasurer’s office, and some licensees have multiple licenses or permits.

Last August the agency came “dangerously close” to laying off five of its 15 investigators because it had to “absorb operational costs,” Goldberg said.

“This is no baloney,” Goldberg told lawmakers.

The ABCC’s rent increased by $20,000 per year, personnel costs went up $127,000 because of a step increase, and a new e-licensing pilot cost $360,000, she said.

The governor’s recommendation would represent a significant increase from the fiscal 2018 funding level of $2.44 million, according to Goldberg, who said the governor’s budget would enable the agency to hire five new inspector investigators and an associate general counsel while bringing two part-time commissioners to full-time. The agency’s budget has only increased 3 percent since fiscal 2009, Goldberg said.

The additional money that Goldberg requested Tuesday would allow the ABCC to “function properly and more efficiently,” the treasurer said, telling lawmakers the agency needs vehicles for new inspector investigators, and administrative staff.

“Investing in the ABCC will allow us to modernize and keep up with a rapidly changing industry, promoting local and statewide economic development, and improving health and safety outcomes,” Goldberg told the legislative budget-writers.

State tax revenues are expected to increase by 3.5 percent in fiscal 2019, generating hundreds of millions of new dollars that lawmakers could spend on a host of competing priorities.

Goldberg’s request is roughly in keeping with the recommendations of the Alcohol Task Force she formed last year. That group recommended new taxes on alcoholic beverages, more staffing at the commission, and an end to the discounted sale of alcohol from distributors to retailers.

While legislative leaders have not indicated any plans to overhaul the state’s alcohol laws this year, lawmakers regularly pass special bills to increase the number of licensed drinking establishments in particular cities and towns.

Last month Gov. Charlie Baker signed two laws granting new licenses for establishments in Salem, allowing Dottie & Rays to add beer and wine to the menu and enabling beer and wine sales at Castle Hill Minimart.

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