You do not need to give the New York State Liquor Authority a Breathalyzer test to know its vision is impaired.
Those of us who represent New York City residential neighborhoods inundated with alcoholic beverage establishments know that too well. Now the state Law Revision Commission has reached the same conclusion in a recent report detailing the SLA’s many shortcomings.
In particular, the commission found that “enforcement is reactive rather than proactive” and that the SLA’s “mission to protect the public health, safety and welfare has been seriously undermined because others are second-guessing the SLA’s fiscal needs.”
To begin with, the SLA only has 38 inspection staff members for the entire state. Is it any wonder unscrupulous bar operators can act with near impunity?
The commission is set to release Part Two of its report by mid-December, detailing its recommendations for changes to correct the problems facing the SLA. The authority’s problems, however, go beyond financial.
What the SLA really suffers from is a split personality: On one hand it is charged with promoting alcoholic beverage establishments as an economic development tool, but on the other it is responsible for clamping down on alcoholic beverage establishments that violate the law or negatively affect residential communities.
It is hard enough for one agency to be both cheerleader and cop, but this is particularly so when that one agency must formulate policies and priorities that satisfy the different economic and social needs found in different parts of the state.
For example, if you listen to people from upstate, they often want to know why it takes so long for the SLA to approve a liquor license for a bar, liquor store or restaurant. After all, legitimate bars and restaurants are legitimate forms of economic development.
But if you listen to our constituents in New York City, they often want to know why the SLA, as the commission found, bends over backward to issue licenses in circumstances when it really should not and why the SLA is not more aggressive in enforcing the state’s liquor laws. This is our quality of life at stake.
New York City is a unique and challenging environment for regulating alcohol, one that demands vigilant oversight. Unfortunately, this is what has been lacking in the SLA’s approach to the city’s alcoholic beverage industry. As a consequence, many local bars and restaurants have taken advantage of the lack of oversight and enforcement, degrading the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.
Any serious consideration of solving the SLA’s problems has to include giving the city the authority to regulate alcoholic beverage sales within the five boroughs. A “New York City Liquor Authority,” as proposed by Assembly bill A.282, would be better equipped to handle the particular challenges of enforcing the alcoholic beverage law in New York City.
In particular, we believe a city liquor authority would be able to strike a better balance between encouraging a thriving and prosperous alcoholic beverage industry while still focusing on protecting the quality of life of New York City residential neighborhoods.