East Bethel council lowers city’s tobacco license fee

by Eric Hagen
Staff Writer

The East Bethel City Council on a 4-0 vote during its Jan. 18 meeting chose to lower the city’s annual cigarette license fee from $300 to $200.

Mayor Richard Lawrence voted yes, but preferred to see the fee lower all the way to $100. The mayor was the one who suggested lowering the cigarette license fee to be more in line with what several neighboring cities charge.

“When I put this forward, I thought the ($300) fee was excessive compared to our surrounding cities,” Lawrence said.

East Bethel staff surveyed 21 communities on 14 different fees related to matters such as liquor and tobacco fees. For the tobacco/cigarette license fees, four cities did not have a fee listed in East Bethel’s comparison chart. The remaining 17 communities averaged about $174.

East Bethel had the highest fee at $300. Lino Lakes charges $50, Ham Lake charges $75 and Oak Grove charges $100, to name a few low-end examples. On the other end of the spectrum, Andover, Anoka and Ramsey charge $250 for a cigarette license fee.

Lawrence said a $300 license fee is excessive considering there are 10 establishments with a license in 2012, meaning the city collected $3,000 for these cigarette license fees.

The city’s attorney estimated it costs approximately $165 to prosecute a case where a clerk sells a tobacco product to a minor. The city attorney prosecuted two cases in 2011 and one so far in 2012, for example. The city council can choose to issue administrative fines when the law is broken. The council fined Coon Lake Market $150 in the most recent case that was heard during the Jan. 18 meeting.

Councilmember Steve Voss made a motion to approve a $175 fee. Councilmember Heidi Moegerle thought the amount should be between $200 and $225 as a test because there are costs for city staff to review the applications. She noted that the deputy city clerk must also take the time to transcribe the minutes from council hearings of violations.

“I’m not nitpicking, but I just think that there are some invisible costs to this…” Moegerle said.

Voss said he would have been fine with leaving the fee at $300.

“Somebody has to be at the end of that spectrum whether it’s us or not, and there seems to be a movement to reduce this,” Voss said.

Voss noted that East Bethel had a lower 3.2 liquor on-sale license fee than some of the other surveyed communities. This is the license that restaurants apply for. East Bethel charges $150 for this license. Andover charges $200 and Anoka and Blaine both charge $300. Columbia Heights and Cambridge charge $400. Bethel and Ham Lake charge a lower amount of $100.

City Administrator Jack Davis said it takes a staff person an average of four hours throughout the year to go through the tobacco/cigarette application process with a business. He said some reviews take less time while others take more time if the city has to repeatedly notify a business that its license to sell tobacco products is about to expire.

“We’re trying to be proactive so their licenses don’t run out,” Davis said.

Councilmember Robert DeRoche Jr. said it should be up to the businesses to make sure they have a current license.

“If they’re going to renew it I would think they should make an effort to do it because if they don’t, then they’re not going to sell the product,” DeRoche said.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com