Five days after Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips joined other Tri-Cities elected officials in urging lawmakers to pass legislation allowing wine sales in Tennessee grocery stores, it's now learned that the Model City's head police officer signed a pledge opposing the bill.
The Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws coalition announced KPD Chief Gale Osborne's support of their cause in a Wednesday press release. Earlier in the day, representatives of their organization gathered at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville to divulge that more than 100 Tennessee police chiefs and sheriffs have signed their document, joining together to oppose the sale of wine in food stores.
Local sheriffs accompanying Chief Osborne's name on the pledge are Ronnie Lawson of Hawkins County and Chris Mathes of Carter County. The police coalition contends that should the proposed bill pass, wine and other "high-proof spirits" will be available at 10 times the number of current retailers — i.e., liquor stores — and in much less "tightly controlled environments."
On Wednesday the Times-News left multiple messages seeking comment from Chief Osborne. At 5 p.m. a reporter was told those messages had been delivered, but he had left for the day and would return calls Thursday.
Meanwhile, Mayor Phillips declined to comment on his and the police chief's difference of opinion on the issue.
On Friday elected officials from Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol presented their Joint Legislative Policy for lawmakers to consider during the General Assembly. It backed legislation allowing wine sales in grocery and convenience stores.
Wednesday's press release from Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws — announcing Chief Osborne's signature on the opposition's pledge — states, "Research demonstrates that increased alcohol availability leads to higher instances of underage drinking, domestic violence and fatalities in a community."
The statement to the media added that young people in the signees' communities "do drink wine, particularly boxed and sweet wines, because it makes them intoxicated faster than beer."
The legislation is expected to be filed by state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. It is supported by the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Stores Association, but has been blocked in past years by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, representing liquor stores in the state.
Wine is sold in Virginia grocery stores, which Lundberg contends has created economic leakage in sales and tax revenues to Tennessee businesses near the border.
"I rent a building to a package store ... but we feel as a group that the sale of wine in grocery stores is going to pass sooner or later," Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips said during the Friday meeting of Tri-Cities municipal officials. "Our alcohol laws, quite frankly, in the state of Tennessee are so outdated that it’s beginning to cost us in economic development."
Wednesday's press release from Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws asked other police officers to join their effort and sign the pledge, with Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork urging lawmakers "to put safety before convenience."
"There’s no question that the more stores you have selling high-proof alcohol the more problems law enforcement will have to deal with," Woolfork is quoted as saying in the release. "It’s not just grocery stores in suburban neighborhoods that will be impacted by the bill, but also markets in urban areas that are already struggling with crime. There’s no benefit to this bill other than consumer convenience. Some things shouldn't be too convenient."
Staff writer Hank Hayes contributed to this report.