County Liquor Control Takeover Questioned

SNOW HILL — A proposal by the Worcester County Commissioners drafted Tuesday could result in the Liquor Control Board (LCB) falling directly under government control.

Several months ago, the LCB came under fire for multiple trade law violations and illegal business practices. The resulting backlash saw proposals for changes to the board being presented to the commissioners, the most publicized of which was a list of amendments to the LCB suggested by the Worcester Alliance for Free Market (WAFM), a newly formed group made of several county liquor license holders.

That proposal, which called for a flat “opt out” fee to be available for licensees who didn’t wish to utilize the LCB’s services, seemed to be one of the front runners in regards to changing the organization.

However, in a move which both representatives of the LCB and the WAFM questioned this week, the County Commissioners are recommending that they be given direct control of liquor disbursements. Additionally, they proposed some amendments to the LCB’s code.

“There were a number of things we were concerned about,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs when asked why the county wished to absorb the LCB. “We really wanted to stabilize the situation.”

According to Boggs, the current LCB condition was not ideal and a lot of customer trust was lost when the board’s trade law violations came to light.

“We want to make sure that everyone gets a fair shot,” she said.

However, LCB attorney John Phoebus expressed doubts as to whether placing the organization under county control would cause any beneficial changes.

“I see this more as just a replacement in leadership,” he said. “They [the county] will be doing all of the same things.”

Doug Buxbaum, owner of Buxy’s Salty Dog and a member of WAFM, agreed.

“It appears to me that they [the commissioners] are taking something from the left pocket and putting it in the right,” said Buxbaum, president of the Worcester County License Beverage Association.

While the current plan to switch control of the LCB into county hands doesn’t call for any major changes to the way the board operates, eight small amendments to the organization’s code were attached to the proposal. None of the tweaks are in line with what the WAFM was hoping for, though, and the exact wording of the changes raised a few eyebrows.

“The language is a little vague,” said Chris Denny, owner of Cheers in Berlin and a member of WAFM.

One possible change that Denny and Buxbaum are both pulling for, however, is what they refer to as a “sunset provision.”

Outlined by WAFM representative attorney Joe Moore in a letter issued to state legislators, the sunset provision would place a deadline on when the county would have to phase out the LCB’s monopoly on wholesale distribution of alcohol. Even before the recent scandal, many liquor license holders have been calling for a breaking of the board’s monopoly on wholesale, which currently forces all liquor to be purchased through the LCB. The sunset provision would mean the eventual elimination of that monopoly by May 2016.

“We want something valid that can’t be changed,” said Denny.
“I’m really hoping to see a Sunset clause in that bill,” agreed Buxbaum.

When questioned about the commission’s stance on such a provision, Boggs admitted they were taking it under consideration, but that it might be more realistic to leave any changes to the LCB’s wholesale operations fluid and up to the commissioners.

“It sounds reasonable,” she said. “I think it’s more reasonable to take the commissioners at their word. We don’t want to get locked into legislation.”

One major concern the LCB had with the possible takeover is the fate of their employees.

“Hopefully, the county will retain a large portion of [the LCB’s] employees,” said Phoebus.

When asked if the commissioners would listen to Phoebus’ suggestion and retain some LCB employees, Boggs responded that those employees were one of the major reasons the county decided to step in.

“We just wanted those employees to stay employed,” she said.

When questioned about the percentage she was hoping would be kept, Boggs replied, “hopefully all of them.”

With so many uncertainties and nothing written in stone yet, it’s hard to tell how the LCB will operate if the commission’s suggestion is accepted at the state level. Boggs referenced Montgomery County as a model, since a similar situation to what is being proposed has been in place there since 1951.

However, Montgomery is the only county of the 23 in Maryland to have liquor operations fall directly under government control. According to Buxbaum, there’s a reason it stands alone.

“I still don’t think the government should be in the liquor business,” he stated.

“I think the whole thing should be privately owned,” added Denny, pointing out that a privatized liquor distribution structure worked perfectly well in the majority of counties in the country. “The government doesn’t create jobs, the private sector does. That’s the way free enterprise works.”

Oddly enough, Boggs agreed.

“We [the commissioners] don’t want to be in the liquor business and certainly not forever,” she said.

However, she claimed that the situation was at the point where the county had no choice but to step in to restore confidence in the embattled organization.

Phoebus expressed doubt, though, that the summer’s trade violations had deteriorated taxpayer and licensee trust to a point where county intervention was necessary.

Adding the sunset provision would likely go a long way toward satisfying the WAFM, while retaining the majority of the LCB’s employees would have the same effect on that end. However, neither of those points are guaranteed.

“We’re waiting to see how this all plays out,” said Buxbaum. “And hoping to receive what we’ve been asking for this whole time; a fair market.”