Investigators who enforce state liquor laws are preparing to resume regular patrols through the thousands of bars and stores in Orange County after being hobbled by state budget cuts in 1991, officials said recently.
Alcoholic Beverage Control investigators in Orange County and elsewhere in the state were shifted from nearly all policing activities to licensing last March to handle an increasing backlog of applications for liquor licenses.
But a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 restores much of the agency's money, allowing officials to hire more people to handle the paperwork backlog and enforcement duties.
"It's going to be a gradual thing, it's not going to be all of a sudden, but we're going to be building up" to regular patrols and increased office staffing, said Dale Rasmussen, agency chief in Orange County, home to about 5,000 bars, restaurants and dance halls.
Rasmussen said he hopes that by March he will have 10 investigators, led by two supervisors, for enforcement, and nine office employees dedicated to full-time processing and investigating of liquor license applications.
ABC agents, who carry handguns and handcuffs, have enforced liquor laws during the budget crunch but usually just when the incidents were of a serious nature.
Problems began for the agency in the fall of 1991 when Gov. Pete Wilson, trying to balance the state budget, cut nearly $5 million from the agency's $23-million annual funding. The agency contemplated layoffs, but so many agents left voluntarily that layoffs were not necessary, officials said.
But the beverage control agency continues to suffer from the loss of those experienced investigators.
"That was our brain trust," Ed Mimiaga, an investigation supervisor in Santa Ana, said of the loss of good agents and the effect on the agency.
Even as the ABC rebuilds, it will remain a downsized agency, officials said. Orange County will have three fewer agents than it did before the budget crisis; statewide there will be about 50 fewer investigators.
The state will hire fewer agents because of a new classification for licensing representatives, who will help relieve investigators of some routine paperwork.
Field investigators who hit the streets again will have a mountain of work ahead of them.
"We're swamped with complaints"--about 300 of them--alleging violations at different sites around the county, Rasmussen said. Many of those complaints are for sales to minors, he added. "We're pretty much going to have to focus on those complaints. We don't have the time to go out and randomly check places," said Carl Falletta, an ABC assistant director for Southern California.
Some business operators are still having problems because of the budget cuts. Someone applying for a liquor license in Orange County can expect to wait about six weeks for approval, Rasmussen said. The agency's goal is to cut that time to two weeks, he said.
Police agencies, which complained they do not have the time or available officers to monitor bars and liquor stores, hail the return of ABC agents.
"Needless to say, we're elated," David L. Snowden, Costa Mesa police chief and president of the state police chief association, said.
But officials continue to criticize the 1991 funding cut.
It was not wise, Snowden said, to cut enforcement while continuing to issue more licenses because that only led to more liquor outlets with fewer people to patrol them. "I think a balance should have been struck," he added.
Some ABC officials justified the trade-off, saying that licensing more establishments would help the recession-mired state economy.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving denounced the 1991 budget cuts, but said return of the agents will help guard against common offenses such as liquor sales to minors, which can have fatal consequences.
"It's vitally important we have well-trained officers" like those in the ABC, said Janet Cater, chief administrator of the Orange County chapter of MADD.
Officials also hope ABC's change in funding status will provide some fiscal stability. The agency will now get money from ABC license renewal fees, instead of being funded by the state's general fund.
Liquor licenses come in various types, with a wide range of one-time costs. The vast majority of those in Orange County are of seven types--sold to public establishments such as bars, restaurants, supermarkets and the like. Here are the major types of licenses and a breakdown of all licenses in the county.
Liquor Licenses by Type Beer, wine on-site at eating establishment (restaurants): 35% Beer, wine, hard liquor on-site at eating establishment: 20 Beer, wine, hard liquor off-site (supermarkets): 19 Beer, wine off-site (convenience stores): 17 Beer, wine, hard liquor on-site, (bars, patrons must be 21): 3 Beer, wine on-site, no food (bars, patrons must be 21): 2 Beer, wine on-site, some food sold (taverns): 1 All others: 3
COST FACTOR Supermarkets pay the biggest fee for their licenses--to sell all types of liquor. Convenience stores, though, can sell beer and wine for substantially less. Beer, wine, hard liquor off-site (supermarkets): $19,400 Beer, wine, hard liquor on-site, (bars, patrons must be 21): 16,000 Beer, wine, hard liquor on-site at eating establishment: 14,400 Beer, wine on-site at eating establishment (restaurants): 300 Beer, wine on-site, no food (bars, patrons must be 21): 300 Beer, wine on-site, some food sold (taverns): 200 Beer, wine off-site (convenience stores): 100
LICENSE APPROVED During fiscal year 1991-92, nearly nine out of 10 license applications filed won approval. That ratio as compared with surrounding counties':
Not County Approved Approved Los Angeles (81%) 1,621 387 Riverside* (96%) 1,069 40 Orange (87%) 775 117 San Diego (86%) 733 118
* Includes San Bernardino County COUNTYWIDE DISTRIBUTION Of the county's nearly 5,000 active liquor licenses, 20% are in just two cities--Anaheim and Santa Ana. Here is a city-by-city look as of June 30, 1992.
Active City Licenses Anaheim 541 Santa Ana 468 Huntington Beach 345 Costa Mesa 315 Garden Grove 297 Newport Beach 288 Orange 271 Fullerton 237 Irvine 186 Westminster 159 Buena Park 145 Fountain Valley 126 Tustin 123 La Habra 119 Mission Viejo 112 San Clemente 105 Laguna Beach 94 Stanton 92 Cypress 91 Brea 77 Placentia 74 Dana Point 67 San Juan Capistrano 58 Yorba Linda 57 Seal Beach 54 Los Alamitos 33 La Palma 24 Villa Park 4 Unincorporated areas 397 County Total 4,959
Source: Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Santa Ana office; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times