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Beltrami County Board holds hearing on bar closing times

About 20 people attended the public hearing and second reading Tuesday of the Beltrami County Board's ordinance to set the bar closing time at 1 a.m.

And of the 12 who stepped up to the microphone to state their positions on the issue, 11 were in favor of a 1 a.m. closing and against the Bemidji City Council's change to the 2 a.m. extended bar hours.

The one person attending the hearing Tuesday to speak in favor of extended hours was Funkley Mayor Emil Erickson, who also owns the Funkley Bar and Lounge. He said his bar remains open until 2 a.m., and his customers have not been involved in accidents or other alcohol-related problems.

"Financially, (the 2 a.m. closing time) not only keeps my bar alive, it keeps my city alive," he said.

Because it is located in a municipality that can adopt any closing time up to the state legislated 2 a.m., the Funkley Bar would not be affected by the County Board's decision. However, Erickson said, he wanted to voice his position on the subject.

Besides Funkley, a county 1 a.m. closing ordinance wouldn't change the hours of bars in the municipalities of Bemidji, Blackduck, Kelliher, Wilton, Solway, Tenstrike or Turtle River, which can follow the 2 a.m. closing the state Legislature enacted in 2003. But a 1 a.m. closing time would affect the 35 on-sale bars in the rural county. Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver said 17 of these bars are licensed to sell intoxicating liquor and 18 are licensed for "non-intoxicating" 3.2 percent alcohol malt liquor.

Former Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann was the first to speak to the issue. He said he opposed the Dec. 10 City Council vote to extend hours to 2 a.m. He also said city and county officials should have discussed the issue together before the differences came up.

"Now, we're stacked to create a 180-degree dilemma," Lehmann said.

Health department and law enforcement officials also supported the 1 a.m. closing.

Dr. Ralph Morris, medical officer with the Beltrami County Health and Human Services Department and chairman of Greater Northwest Emergency Medical Services, said the number of impaired drivers doubles after 1 a.m. He cited Minnesota Department of Public Safety statistics that show between 2005 and 2009 21 fatal crashes and 74 serious injury accident in Beltrami County. He said a third of these related to alcohol consumption.

Mary Marchel, director of Beltrami County Health and Human Services, commended the County Board for taking seriously its role as Beltrami County Board of Health to "regulate actual and potential threats to public health."

She said 34 alcohol-related injuries occurred in 2009 in Beltrami County with direct costs of $860,000 in medical expenses, property damage and lost productivity. She added that statistically, alcohol causes about the same amount of disease as tobacco use, which the County Board banned for indoor environments in January 2005.

Sheriff Phil Hodapp also endorsed the 1 a.m. bar closing, noting that Beltrami County's fatality record has improved from 13th deadliest of Minnesota's 87 counties to 22nd deadliest, "which still, in my estimate, is not a good standing. I think we can do better."

He said in his survey of fellow law enforcement officers, none supported extended bar hours.

Jay Passa, Bemidji State University Health Education coordinator, said, "Alcohol abuse is the most salient issue our youth are going to face. The people most likely to take advantage of the late bar closing are the at-risk drinkers."

Toward the end of the public hearing, BSU junior Brian Ophus said he wanted to speak for younger county residents. He noted the majority of those in attendance supported a 1 a.m. closing.

He told the commissioners, "I feel the people have spoken and you have a duty as elected officers."