State liquor store closes; governor hopes to avoid more

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 6:13 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Linda Salazar couldn't help but be emotional Thursday as she made her final purchase at the state liquor store on Main Street hours before it closed for good.

"Thank you so much," Salazar said as she hugged one of the store clerks who would soon be out of work. A retired waitress who lives nearby, Salazar said she came to the store just about every day.

"It's part of my life," she said, fighting back tears. "It's not just the store, it's the people who work here."

The store located at 1457 S. Main isn't the only state liquor outlet set to close for budget reasons. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is recommending another six stores shut their doors.

All of the stores make money for the state, which controls all liquor, wine and high-alcohol beer sales in Utah. The Main Street store alone had posted annual sales of $3 million, and the other six more than $20 million.

But lawmakers have ordered the department to make budget cuts. Those resulted in the closure of the Main Street store this budget year. Nearly $2.3 million more, however, must be cut from the budget year that begins July 1.

That's got everyone from Gov. Gary Herbert to State Liquor Commission Chairman Sam Granato concerned about the state losing more money than the cuts will save.

"Clearly it doesn't make sense," the governor's budget director, Ron Bigelow, said. "We're looking to see if there are any options for us to mitigate that, at least for a while."

Bigelow said the governor's office expects to meet next week with lawmakers who oversee the budget to talk about using some one-time money to keep at least some of the six stores slated for closure open.

Any such appropriation would have to be approved in a special legislative session and Bigelow said it's not clear there would be support. "That's a tough one," he said.

A legislative audit of the department that followed proposed closing stores as a better way to reduce costs. The 2010 audit said department concerns that budget cuts would slash sales were unfounded because the impact on revenues was unknown.

Granato said Thursday he is hopeful there will be a reprieve before the liquor commission is scheduled to vote April 28 on closing the other six stores.

"My level of frustration goes back to common business sense," Granato said. "We are a well-run business. It's not treated that way. … We make a lot of money for this state."

He said there was little choice but to close stores without some additional funds. And that, he said, means fewer sales and less revenue for the state.

"People don't like to be inconvenienced," he said, warning, for example, that customers in some areas of St. George will drive over the nearby border to Nevada if one of the stores closes.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the co-chairman of the budget subcommittee that came up with the budget cuts, said he doesn't expect the state to lose money.

"I think there's a real attempt to turn this into some kind of political event," Stevenson said. "Our goal was not to decrease sales but to increase efficiency.

"If the governor's office can find some money, I wouldn't want to get into a land war," Stevenson said. "We probably ought to take a look."

Email: lisa@desnews.com

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