Atlanta audit finds staff shortages affecting liquor licensing enforcement

Atlanta’s auditor says a lack of staffing and procedures in the police department’s License and Permits Unit could introduce “corruption and fraud risks” in Atlanta’s liquor licensing process.

Atlanta Police investigate applications for licenses to sell alcohol as part of an approval process involving several departments, including the License Review Board and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office. But the new audit — presented Monday to the council’s Public Safety & Legal Administration Committee — revealed 10 of the police unit’s 21 positions are vacant, hindering efforts to vet applications and inspect the 1,455 businesses licensed to sell alcohol.

City Auditor Amanda Noble told the committee the police need to fill vacancies and properly update application procedures, among 11 other recommendations.

“Procedures are intended to mitigate corruption and fraud risks,” Noble said. “The fact that they couldn’t follow the procedure increases those risks.”

Noble released the 56-page audit after investigating the unit from October 2018 through September 2020. She initiated the audit at a city council member’s request due to reports of illegal activity at some businesses.

Auditors found the unit lacks procedures on how to properly perform and document inspections. The unit only investigated 36% of the complaints against 137 businesses due to insufficient staffing, for instance. The unit failed to reinspect seven locations with liquor ordinance violations as well.

The inadequate staffing also means the unit accepts incomplete applications sometimes, creating another workload for the staff, Noble said. The audit found documents missing from many licensing applications.

Additionally, auditors found the staffing constraints hinder the city’s ability to verify food and liquor sales. The unit’s decentralized process for handling fees is also reducing the city’s ability to accurately monitor licensing transactions, according to the audit.

“Due to the lack of public education on the application process, inaccurate documents and website information, and lack of staff training, the application process may be subject to delay and corruption,” the audit says. “Without proper knowledge of the process, applicants may be at risk of being solicited for under-the-table payments.”

Noble’s office told Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant to create procedures for investigators to properly enforce city code requirements at businesses. The police also need to process fees using EnerGov software, she said.

Bryant agreed with virtually every recommendation, Noble said. The completion deadlines for the solutions all fall within 2021.

But the council committee said Bryant and the mayor’s office should still address the audit at the committee’s May 10 meeting.

Councilmember Joyce Sheperd, who chairs the public safety committee, called the findings “unbelievable.” Councilmember Dustin Hillis called the findings “absolutely ridiculous” and “very disturbing.”

“There’s a lot of work to be done in this department,” Sheperd said. “I’m just blown away by this report.”

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