MELINDA DESLATTE / Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Louisiana's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control is lax in monitoring businesses that have permits to sell alcohol, skipping some routine inspections and shrinking compliance checks, according to an audit released Monday.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office looked at the ATC's regulation of alcohol beverage outlets for three budget years from 2011 through 2013. The agency has more than 15,000 active alcohol permits that it oversees.
"We found that while ATC has improved its timeliness in issuing alcohol permits, it needs to better manage its monitoring and enforcement processes to ensure that all alcohol beverage outlets are in compliance with ATC regulations," the audit says.
Auditors say the agency was inconsistent in inspections, didn't do proper follow-ups on violations and omitted late fees for some businesses that didn't renew permits on time.
The New Orleans area and north Louisiana had the highest percentages of uninspected businesses selling alcohol, perhaps because agents aren't distributed in proportion to the number of permitted businesses, the audit says.
In New Orleans, where there are a total of 1,233 alcohol beverage outlets, 542 were not inspected, by far the highest number in the state. On a percentage basis, 44% of ABOs in the city were not inspected. Baton Rouge was second highest, with 161 establishments uninspected.
While the New Orleans percentage was one of the highest in the state, the office performed even worse in several other New Orleans-area municipalities. Among the local cities and towns with the highest percentage of ABOs that went uninspected were highest were Gretna, 44%t, LaPlace, 46%, Reserve, 54%, and Grand Isle, 67%.
In a written response, Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Troy Hebert agreed with recommendations for improvement.
He said the agency is planning upgrades to its outdated computer system, repositioning agents to improve inspection coverage and working to get all alcohol-selling businesses inspected annually, which he said isn't required by law.
But Hebert also defended his office's performance.
He said the agency has made tremendous progress since he took over three years ago, cutting the average permit issuance time, increasing fine collections and reducing customer wait times while cutting staff by 25% and reducing annual spending.
"ATC recognizes that there are still numerous improvements to be made, but the agency has come a long way in ensuring that the taxpayers of Louisiana are getting the most for their hard-earned money," Hebert wrote.
The office is under the oversight of the Department of Revenue. It has a budget of about $6 million and 57 employees.
Auditors say compliance checks, which are the primary way ATC determines whether a business is selling alcohol to underage drinkers, were cut in half from the 2011-2012 fiscal year to 2012-2013, dropping from nearly 9,000 checks to fewer than 4,500.
The agency didn't conduct inspections on 24% of businesses that sell alcohol in the past year and didn't revisit 54% of the businesses that had identified violations from October 2012 through June 2013, the audit says.
82% of businesses that had suspended permits in an eight-month period weren't checked within five days of the suspension to make sure they weren't still selling alcohol, the review says.
"ATC's data system limits management's ability to use data to monitor and evaluate its regulatory activities," auditors wrote.
Hebert, a former state senator, took over as commissioner in November 2010. Auditors said they were able to review only the years since Hebert was appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration because "limited data existed on ATC's regulatory activities" before then.