SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Sheena Collum is a force to be reckoned with when she wants change. She has led the way for integrating affordable housing onsite in local redevelopment plans, and shepherded a pandemic budget through against opposition from police and fire unions.
Her next quest: The South Orange Village President, now in her second term, has long been a big proponent of liquor license reform, and was just named to a state committee on the topic.
“I’m very outspoken on it,” Collum said, referring to the reason for her appointment to the State League of Municipalities Liquor License Task Force. “I’m thrilled to be a part of the conversation because I know the impacts it will have on our local restaurant owners who are struggling to survive.”
Noting her first meeting was a few days away, she announced her appointment at last Monday's Board of Trustees meeting, saying she will get counsel from Trustee Bob Zuckerman, “who's also the president of Downtown New Jersey, as we hope to get some relief for our restaurants and our small businesses as they try and make their way out of this pandemic... And I know that we've heard all of you loud and clear on this flexibility, not just to help businesses, but from an equity standpoint on how we look at liquor licenses and how we try and lift everybody up. Rising tide raises all ships. So, I am excited about that.”
Collum and the task force will be tasked with correcting New Jersey’s bureaucratic and extremely expensive liquor license laws. The task force is growing and currently has five committee members and two staff members.
Collum said liquor license reform is necessary, “especially given the need for economic recovery especially for restaurants is to make them be able to serve beer and wine.” The cost of liquor licenses locally is out of control, according to Collum, and currently “The market rate of a license in South Orange runs north of half a million dollars, which is absurd.” In neighboring Maplewood, a municipally owned liquor license is currently out for bid at a minimum of $420,000; it has been out for bidding twice before with no bidders.
The first order of business would be lifting restrictions on population, she said. Currently, liquor licenses are distributed according to population and the number available in any given area is limited. “It has nothing to do with demand,” said Collum, adding how little sense that makes for business owners. “We should eliminate it altogether and let it be an open market.” She noted that “allowing our small businesses to obtain a liquor license can help their bottom line significantly with margins for alcohol being 20%-40% compared to food margins which are as low as 10%.”
The task force’s game plan is to survey mayors, see what the biggest challenges are for them, get a gauge from a poll, craft legislation and find sponsors. Alternatively, it may be possible to take existing legislation and add amendments to it, she said.
Nobody has been able to reform it yet because of the lobbying efforts to protect existing owners, according to Collum, but she said she is determined to change that. She said she understood the concerns of existing liquor license holders and noted, “Compensating existing owners is going to be important.”
“But we can’t support a monopoly,” Collum said emphatically. “Some of the liquor license laws were written all the way back when there was prohibition and nobody’s changed it,” explained Collum. “This is the most antiquated liquor law in the country. You don’t see this in other states. It’s a monopoly.”
Collum's goal for the committee? “To stop talking about this issue and finally get it done. In every legislative session, there are new bills introduced for reform but nothing meaningful ever comes to fruition. The lobbying of special interest groups continue to dominate at the expense of good and equitable public policy in Trenton, and it’s time for local elected officials and the public to speak up!” Her appointment to the state’s Liquor License Task Force just may be a first step towards making that possible.