By ANDREA VARGO
Howard Lake Police Chief Mike Simmons was called in by City Councilwoman Jean Schmidt Saturday night, Sept. 6 to close the municipal liquor store because of a citizen complaint.
When Councilman Tom Kutz arrived, there were employees allegedly drinking on the job and giving out free drinks.
"That is an automatic dismissal," he said.
The City Council met in a special session Thursday to discuss the situation and get citizen input.
Citations were written by Simmons for property damage, fighting, a domestic, and trying to buy liquor for a minor, said Kutz.
"Oh, that goes on all the time," said a voice from the audience.
Mayor Mark Custer said, "I was told when I became mayor that the liquor store would be my biggest headache, and it has been."
Custer said he was concerned about someone leaving the bar and getting injured or killed.
"It seems the patrons of the bar are running it, not the manager," said City Administrator Doug Borglund.
Pat Van Oss, owner of the Old Town Gallery, said he has observed bar patrons coming from the bar in no condition to drive a car.
"In the last months, it seems we are waiting for another dram shop accident," he said.
According to the city's insurance agent, Duane Burkstrand, a claim would increase the city's insurance cost by 10 to 20 percent, whether it was won or lost.
Kutz said, "It seems to be an employee problem. We haven't been able to find a good manager to run it as a business.
"There is the potential for law suits against the city for discrimination and other things."
"I think it might be a good idea to just keep the off sale. If we expand the volume of products on the floor, we can lower prices and be competitive," said Kutz.
"Some of the stuff we have to deal with (in the bar) on a day to day basis is just plain nonsense," he said.
Councilman Al LePage told the assembly, "I'm in favor of just keeping the off sale because of the employee problems.
"Maybe we could lease the bar to a private owner. Maple Lake did that and is going great guns," he said.
From the audience came a question about how the utilities would be handled if the bar was leased.
City Clerk Gene Gilbert said the auditor figures the share of all utility costs for the city hall building. She didn't know the percentages for each section.
"I agree with Tom about the management and employee problems. We haven't had anyone in there to really run the place for a long time," said Councilman Shelly Reddemann.
He said there have been some excellent applications received by the city in response to the ad placed for a liquor store manager.
Several of them have college degrees and management experience, said Reddemann.
"I think we need to give some of these people a chance to interview and do the job," he said.
Gerry Smith, Gerry's Super Valu, said "I don't think (as a businessman) I would close it at this point."
The suggestion was made for the city to hire a consultant to study the situation and determine whether the on or off sale was profitable.
The question was asked about why former manager Annette Uri left in the first place.
Gilbert said, "You'll have to call her and ask her yourself."
She said Uri was just given a raise from $11.55 per hour to $13.
A suggestion was made by a citizen that the manager be offered a bonus for doing a good job.
Said Custer, "That is what the state pay equity thing is about. Should we give the wastewater manager a bonus for doing a good job? How do we make that fair for people who can't bring in money for the city but still do a good job?
Former mayor Welton Zander said, "In 1995, 34 municipal liquor stores closed in the state. Most of them kept the off sale and elected to license individuals. I support Al in keeping the off sale. It needs to be right on Highway 12. Doing this sort of thing was the best thing Buffalo ever did."
"But, anybody who has been in business knows you need to be around to see that everything is right," said Zandar.
Representing the contingent of Lions Club members present, Sam Gruenhagen said, "On behalf of the Lions, I would hate to see the bar close.
The portion that has to be donated back to the community from the Lions' pull tabs this year will be about $84,000, he said.
"I doubt anyone in their right mind would want to run the bar without pull tabs," he said.
"We put about $6,500 per month back into the community. If people want to gamble, why not let them do it here where it benefits the community. Otherwise, they will go to one of the casinos, and we won't see any benefit from that," he said.
LePage said, "Pull tabs generate bar business, also."
Custer said, "Pull tabs generate two times what the on and off sale do together."
He said the key to a successful off sale is to get the location like Buffalo and Maple Lake did.
Buffalo moved to Highway 55 on the north side, so traffic from the Twin Cities can easily pull into a big parking lot as it comes out in the evenings and weekends.
Maple Lake moved its off sale into the building next to the H & H Sport Shop on the north side of Highway 55. It also is doing well, he said.
Schmidt asked about the slow hours for the bar. One employee told her Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings are slowest.
Since the inventory and shelf stocking is such a mess, she said, perhaps a late opening could provide some extra time for straightening up the basement and getting things in better order.
A chorus of voices opposed the hour delay for opening the bar.
"But what are we going to do until we hire a manager," asked Schmidt?"
"We need to do something, so when we do hire a manager he or she doesn't have to come into such a mess," she said.
Custer said the liquor committee would sit down with the employees and Borglund to determine the hours for the next week, so the council had time to interview a new manager.
The final decision for hours are: Monday and
Tuesday the bar opens at 3:30 p.m.; Wednesday - Saturday it will
open at 10 a.m.; the off-sale will open at 10 a.m. as usual.