Businesses in Atascadero will not have to pay a license fee to sell tobacco after the City Council on Tuesday unanimously agreed to kill the idea for now because they thought it would be a burden on retailers. They made the decision despite an enforcement procedure that an alarmingly high 32 percent of stores illegally sold tobacco to decoys in August, according to the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department.

Community outreach late last year that helped bring illegal sales down to 0 percent in February played a role in the decision, officials said.

The council decided to continue the voluntary efforts at curbing illegal tobacco sales instead of developing a tobacco retail-licensing ordinance in order to spare local tobacco retailers the burden of added fees.

“I think we have a responsibility to businesses … not to charge them on every little thing,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelley said, echoing the opinions of other council members. But the council also said it would consider adopting an ordinance in the future if businesses continued to sell tobacco to minors.

After the council became concerned about the August sales rate, it directed the city to conduct two tobacco stings starting in late 2010 to see whether various local and national retailers would sell to underage decoys.

It also asked for community outreach efforts to supplement the work, which included workshops with groups such as the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce that were directed at local tobacco-selling businesses.

In December, only 8 percent of Atascadero’s stores illegally sold tobacco to decoys under the new program. In February that went down to 0 percent. The city and community attribute that to the stings and community outreach efforts.

While all were pleased with the perfect compliance rate of Atascadero’s 26 tobacco retailers, some members of the public hoped for a more sustainable approach.

The county’s Tobacco Control Program specialist Christina Lefevre, an Atascadero resident, lobbied for the ordinance. She said that because a tobacco retailer pays for a license under a city ordinance, those monies could fund the police stings and outreach programs.

Police stings cost the city about eight hours of one officer’s time, Atascadero acting Police Chief Steve Gesell said. Local ordinances are designed to back state law against selling tobacco to those age 17 and younger. As it stands now, a clerk caught selling tobacco to a minor is cited for a misdemeanor with fines ranging from about $200 to $2,000, but the retailer itself goes unscathed.

With a city ordinance, a tobacco retailer license can also be suspended or revoked if a store is caught selling to minors.

“It’s the two items together that makes it work — the consistent enforcement and the threat of monetary penalties,” Lefevre said before the meeting.

Now the county will be less able to assist with administering stings as it has in the past due to state budget shortfalls, so it’s up to the cities to ensure tobacco enforcement continues on their own. The county will continue to pursue local policy change and outreach.

Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach are the only cities in the county besides Atascadero without a tobacco ordinance.