County Liquor Control Bills Pass Senate, House

SNOW HILL — With the Worcester County Liquor Control Board (LCB) facing big changes, one final effort is being made to impact the future of the organization by its current leaders.

Legislation set to hand control of the LCB directly over to the county has gone beyond “if” it will come into effect and has become more a matter of “when.”

As of yesterday, the bill has passed through the House with a unanimous 138-0 vote and passed the Senate earlier in the week. Now, the only step left is a signature from the governor.

“It’s a done deal,” said Delegate Mike McDermott yesterday.

In a letter addressed to Senator Jim Mathias, representatives of the LCB made two requests that they hoped would be attached to the finalized bill.

While the board maintained its stance of disapproval over the county absorption, the letter asserted that the group had a duty to “ensure that any transition between the LCB and the county goes smoothly,” both for the employees and the taxpayers.

The first request is for a number of protective measures aimed at current LCB employees. Those measures, first suggested by McDermott, would seek to guard the rights and positions of any employees who decide to remain with the LCB after it has become the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC).

Specifically, the letter asks Mathias to include language that will protect any employee from suffering “a diminution of salary or wages, accrued leave, whether earned or granted, or seniority rights.”

It also would ensure that those employees retain their current classification and that they would not be forced to undergo any further “examination or qualification.”

“I appreciate the existing board’s concerns about the employees, but I explicitly trust Worcester County and the administration to deal in good faith with the employees,” said McDermott, who did include provisions protecting LCB employees in his version of the bill which was approved by the House. “The people working there for a number of years will stay employed and there will be a smooth transition. I am confident of that.”

McDermott did add, however, that the leaders of the LCB should not look for the same level of job security, given the circumstances.

“I don’t think anybody could reasonably expect the same assurances for the management,” said McDermott. “The top-end staff should not be expecting to be retained in light of everything that has happened to get us to this point.”

The second request made of Mathias came in the form of a recommendation.

With liquor license holders in the county potentially being able to opt out of DLC control in 2016, Phoebus, on behalf of the LCB, suggested that Worcester be given the authority to levy an “opt-out” fee on those licensees who do decide to purchase liquor from a non-county controlled distributor in the future.

“This would ensure that this new county system is truly revenue-neutral to the taxpayers of Worcester County,” asserted Phoebus.

However, as of the passing of the bill through the House Thursday, no such language had been added, though there is always the possibility of future amendments.

Before concluding his letter, Phoebus brought Mathias up to speed on one of the last acts of the soon-to-be dissolved LCB. Several months ago, the board paid the state Comptroller’s office a $16,000 settlement to avoid possible suspension over trade violations. However, the LCB is seeking a refund of that settlement.

Phoebus has gone on record stating the opinion that the comptroller does not have authority over the LCB and therefore had no legal right to accept the $16,000 in the first place. He argues that the comptroller may only suspend or revoke permits and licenses that they themselves issued. Because the LCB was granted its authority by an act of the General Assembly, Phoebus claims they aren’t in the comptroller’s jurisdiction.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot disagrees and has made it clear that his office is not planning on refunding the settlement.

“We aren’t going to pay it back because they broke the law, they paid the fine voluntarily and somebody has to be in charge,” said Franchot previously.

The LCB has taken the matter before the Attorney General. While no verdict had been passed at the time of Phoebus’ letter, he informed Mathias that a decision was “expected shortly.”