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Minors at bars, sales tax highlight big night at Grand Forks City Hall

When Grand Forks leaders started loosening restrictions on private parties at bars, it passed through an early review almost without a peep from the public.

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Grand Forks City Hall, 255 N. 4th St. (GF Herald photo/Sam Easter)
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When Grand Forks leaders started loosening restrictions on private parties at bars, it passed through an early review almost without a peep from the public.

Not so on Monday.

The City Council voted 6-1 to allow private parties at bars with those under age 21 present, provided it's just wine and beer served-not liquor. The vote creates a permitting process that allows such parties on a case-by-case basis, and proponents cheer it as a common-sense step forward for local bars. They've already been allowed to hold parties at other places-perhaps a hotel down the road-but not at their own address.

But opponents expressed concern about the risk the change could pose to youth. Some worried it would ease their access to alcohol, while others worried about exposing young people to a bar environment.

"This is a big step in the wrong direction," said Cynthia Shabb, one such concerned area resident, describing her daughter's struggle with alcohol. "I thought Grand Forks was making a little bit of progress, and that city leaders truly cared about the usage of alcohol and drugs among underage drinkers," she said.

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But for Sarah Horak, co-owner of three downtown bars, the change ironed out unwelcome wrinkles in local law. She pointed out that the former owner of the downtown club Level 10 couldn't hold his own wedding reception there in 2009, and that at Brick and Barley-another location she co-owns-an estimated $60,000 has slipped past the business in the past two years because of missed opportunities the change allows.

The change was made as allowed under recently altered state law. Grand Forks' change isn't as permissive as the state allows, though, only permitting private parties.

City Council member Sandi Marshall voted against the change. Before her vote, she said it's her job to carefully weigh her responsibility to the public on such sensitive issues.

"This ordinance seems to elevate the risks a step beyond the special events we've already approved," she said.

Other council members wondered what difference it would make to simply shift the location of such events, given that they already happen in the city. City Council President Dana Sande added that the discussion leading to these changes has been going on for years-the city's not rushing this, he argued.

And he pressed back hard against the suggestion that the council may not care about youths.

"It's not only ridiculous, it's insulting," he said.

Sales tax

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The city budgeting process kicked off on Monday evening. In a council planning session, held after its regular meeting, the city started delving into its budget-and the likelihood of a vote to hike the sales tax before the end of the year.

A debate on the item has been long-expected, ever since the city's most recent attempt to raise the sales tax failed at the polls in November. Following Monday's meeting, Mayor Mike Brown said there's a "96 percent" chance a vote happens this year, but said the starting point for the new proposal begins with the local Chamber's suggestion of a 0.5 percent hike over the next 20 years targeted at water projects and city streets. The tax would be capped at $2,500 purchases.

Brown added that the earliest formal proposal language is expected back from the city attorney's office in a month.

Other business

• The council gave a 7-0 consent agenda vote to two other drug and alcohol items, giving them early approval before a second reading-and likely final passage-early next month. One makes consuming marijuana illegal, which aligns local code with state law; the other eliminates the need for a special Sunday liquor license, which is newly allowed under state law.

• The council voted 7-0 to ink a lease agreement with the Greater Grand Forks Senior Citizens Association, extending the rent on 620 Fourth Ave. S. into 2022 for $1.

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