Damakant Jayshi

City leaders in Wausau could soon formally approach Wisconsin lawmakers to either make changes to statutes governing alcohol operator’s licenses or empower cities to make changes of their own, in the face of ongoing workforce shortages.

This suggestion came from the city’s Public Health and Safety Committee through a resolution on Monday. The committee suggested that two separate alcohol operators licenses should be created, distinguishing between those selling alcohol for on-site consumption such as restaurants and taverns and others, like convenience stores and grocers, selling alcohol for off-premise use. Current state law does not allow for the option, which means municipalities are unable to create a new licensing structure.

The resolution that the committee approved on Monday asks the Wisconsin Legislature to empower municipalities to allow separate licenses for “someone who just wants to work in a retail establishment, like a grocery store or a convenience store or a gas station.”

“A number of times this committee has lamented the fact that we don’t have a license that we can give,” said Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7.

This scenario has happened on several occasions, some of which have been recent. On March 21, the committee denied Jason Brown’s application for an operator’s license to work at a gas station. Brown said he needed to have the license as a job requirement. “I have a lot of bills and I need money to care of that,” he said.

But Brown didn’t fit the criteria for a Wausau license due to his criminal record, which included prior felony and battery convictions. Though his convictions are from eight years earlier, the committee struggled to issue a license due to the “totality of the records” in his past. With no ‘retail only’ license available, Brown had no recourse after the Wausau Police Department recommended his denial. In committee, the denial was upheld, 3-1, with member Becky McElhaney voting against the denial recommendation. Jim Wadinski was absent at the meeting.

But after that denial, Rasmussen told her colleagues on Monday, Alder Patrick Peckam (Dist. 1) held discussions with her about the matter, and McElhaney (Dist. 6) contacted a state legislator, Representative Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield).

“I spoke with Pat Snyder last Tuesday. He has heard from others, he understands the problem, and he promised that it would be taken in January,” said McElhaney, who is also Common Council president. “He said he would bring it up…I told him that we have people with background issues. We want them to work. We want them to earn money to pay their fines, to be rehabilitated, but we are saying no.”

Rasmussen said the issue relates to workforce development. Employers have jobs that need to be filled but the existing licensing rules make it difficult not only for business owners to get qualified applicants but also for people who want to work – only to be turned away.

“It’s keeping people who maybe have something on their record but it’s been a long time or they have something on their record but they are perfectly capable of doing that retail job but they can’t get the license,” Rasmussen said. “For years, we have tried to figure out to fix it. This would be a reasonable solution and so hopefully, it doesn’t take two more years for them to figure out that this is the way forward.”

In prior meetings, Rasmussen voted multiple times to deny applicants with criminal backgrounds on the basis that an alcohol operator’s license stays with the individual, not the business. That means that a person licensed to sell alcohol at a convenience store could also sell alcohol at a tavern, for example.

Rasmussen told the committee that the resolution in front of them would ask lawmakers to split the sever license and “basically give us the authority to either designate one for retail-only or create a type of server license that is retail-only,” but added that empowering municipalities to deal with it would be a better and quicker solution.

The resolution, passed unanimously, now heads to the Common Council for its consideration on April 26.