In anticipation of a measure expected to soon be on the menu for Mount Airy officials, candidates for the upcoming city election generally are in favor of the so-called “brunch bill.”
It refers to legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly in May which permits cities and towns to decide for themselves if alcohol may be served two hours earlier on Sundays. For years, alcohol sales have not been allowed before noon that day and Senate Bill 155 has changed this to 10 a.m. with local approval.
Officials in the towns of Dobson and Pilot Mountain passed ordinances in support of the brunch bill in August, citing benefits to the local business community, particularly wineries. Supporters have noted that one motivation from a tourism standpoint is allowing visitors heading out of town on Sunday morning to buy wine to take home, which is not possible now.
The measure hasn’t yet reached the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners for its consideration, but also could receive a favorable reaction from that body based on comments by candidates for the 2017 city election at a forum Tuesday night.
It featured the three people running for seats on the five-member board, along with the two candidates for mayor.
One definitive comment on the brunch bill came during the forum from Commissioner Jon Cawley, who is running unopposed for his North Ward seat on the city board.
“I won’t support that,” said Cawley, a member of the local ministry, mentioning his religious beliefs as the reason for this stance.
Cawley indicated that Sunday morning should continue to be set aside as a time for religious activities that are not encroached upon or interfered with by the expansion of alcohol sales.
However, Cawley conceded that the pre-noon sales likely will be permitted in Mount Airy despite his opposition.
Other candidates at Tuesday night’s forum reacted more favorably to that prospect, with some reservations.
Todd Harris, a former city commissioner who is challenging incumbent Steve Yokeley for his South Ward council seat, said he supports the brunch bill.
Harris, a political conservative, pointed out that he is all for religion and the country getting back to the fundamentals of it, but allowing alcohol sales for two extra hours on Sunday morning is not going to affect someone’s church pursuits.
“The time for your faith is probably a seven-day-a-week job,” Harris said. “Those people that are going to go to church are going to go to church.”
Yokeley, Harris’ opponent, offered a similar view.
“I agree with Todd, people that are going to go to church will go regardless,” he said.
Yokeley said he needs more information on the brunch bill’s implications before deciding how he’d vote as a commissioner. “It will have to be proved to me what economic impact it would have on the community.”
While saying he does not drink himself, Yokeley added that he has no problem with those who do as long as they don’t drive afterward.
Ivy Sheppard, who is running for mayor against incumbent David Rowe, said she believes the brunch bill is one of those policy matters in which a person should set aside personal beliefs and rely on a “cost-benefit analysis.”
Rowe offered mixed sentiments on the issue.
The mayor said he doesn’t think the brunch bill in and of itself will have that much effect on people who go to church or consume alcohol. But he also hearkened back to sentiments among community members who have the opposite view, saying his late mother, for one, would not approve of him taking such a position.
“My head tells me, ‘vote for it,’ but my heart says, ‘maybe not.’”
Among other issues raised at this week’s forum were concerns about Mount Airy’s budget and the need to explore new sources of revenue to meet pressing expenses of the municipality.
One such big-ticket item is the city’s aging water and sewer infrastructure that will require massive expenditures as time passes to replace lines that are a century old in some cases.
Yokeley said the municipality has done a good job seeking grants for utility projects, but more revenue sources are required in lieu of raising property taxes.
“The main way is sales taxes,” he said, quickly adding that this doesn’t mean higher costs for local residents, but through increased tourism in which visitors to town would pay additional taxes.
Cawley disagreed, saying he would love to believe more sales taxation is the solution to the city’s dilemma. “But that’s not going to be the answer,” he said, explaining that revenue from this source is insufficient to match the many needs of the municipality.
In addition to infrastructure projects, there is increasing pressure to raise the pay of municipal employees to better conform to other towns of similar size.
Cawley successfully led a movement last spring to limit salary hikes only to sworn members of the police department, reminding Tuesday night that he didn’t support across-the-board raises because these are “unsustainable.”
The mayor said monetary constraints are a problem with many goals of the city.
“Given unlimited funds, there’s no telling what we could do around here,” Rowe said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.