County Officially Absorbs LCB; Cowger Named Executive Director

SNOW HILL — Control over the sale of liquor in Worcester has officially been passed on to the County Commissioners.

As of today, the Liquor Control Board (LCB) has become the Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Along with the name change comes a new director, though a familiar one for liquor licensees.

Bobby Cowger, who has been serving as a consultant to the commissioners on liquor control matters, has been confirmed as the man taking over the role of executive director.

“Having Mr. Cowger at the helm will help assure that the DLC can hit the ground running,” said Commission President Bud Church. “His knowledge coupled with the trust he has already established with the liquor licensees will help assure a smooth transition from the independent Liquor Control Board to the Worcester County DLC.”

Cowger will be assuming control with a unique amount of experience. He is the only person in the county to have served both as director of the LCB and as a County Commissioner.  

While the county absorption of the LCB is considered controversial by many, the choice to put Cowger in the driver’s seat seems to be a popular one with license holders. Many have said Cowger was fair and honest to work with when he was in charge of the LCB years ago.

“We’ve worked with him in the past,” said Doug “Buxy” Buxbaum, a licensee and member of the Worcester Alliance for Free Markets (WAFM), “and we look forward to working with him again.”

WAFM was founded earlier this year by Buxbaum and several other licensees after the LCB was found guilty of a number of trade violations. WAFM has made it no secret that its end goal is to see licensees given the option of handling wholesale liquor purchases themselves, instead of filtering through a liquor control board, which adds a mark-up to wholesale prices and is an entity they consider an unnecessary middle-man.

The commissioners’ decision to take over the LCB and maintain a monopoly instead of simply dissolving it was something WAFM lobbied against but failed to prevent.  However, the parties were able to compromise on a “sunset provision”, which will allow any licensee interested to leave the DLC in five years.

But for the time being, WAFM will have to get used to the transition, a move that officials on both sides claim is running like clockwork.

“It really couldn’t be going any smoother than it is right now,” said Attorney John Phoebus, who represents the LCB.

“I don’t think we’ll see one hick-up in operations,” he added, addressing worries that handing over control at the start of possibly the busiest tourism weekend of the year might result in liquor shortages or other problems.

Phoebus admitted that there were a lot of concerns about the transition in the beginning, mainly, what would happen to LCB employees when the agency ceased to exist. But the commissioners made it clear early on that most employees would be welcomed into the DLC, an offer that Phoebus confirmed was being taken.

“The vast majority of employees are going over,” he said, adding that everyone seemed to be “in good spirits.” He pointed out that many county benefits were equivalent if not better than what those employees had received under the LCB.

While the offer to join the DLC was open to most of the LCB, it was not extended to all members of the upper management. 
Cowger will be replacing his LCB counterpart, Brian Sturgeon. According to Phoebus, the decision is not one the LCB agreed with, as members would have liked to see Sturgeon make the transition to the new agency.

However, Phoebus stressed that Sturgeon has been cooperative, advising the commissioners during the changeover, despite not receiving a job offer.

In the end, said Phoebus, the commissioners will have a lot of work and difficult choices to make, especially regarding pricing.

“We wish them the best of luck,” he said.

Commissioner Louise Gulyas was similarly optimistic about the transition.

“It’s going to be a smooth takeover,” she said.

Gulyas acknowledged that the commission was new to the business, and that there would likely be “glitches” as they learned. But she was confident that, if given the chance, the county will restore faith in the system to many jaded licensees.

Buxbaum was less satisfied with how the changeover has been conducted to this point, but is hopeful pricing concerns will be addressed.

Buxbuam explained that, in the last few months since learning of its coming restructuring, the LCB has been inconsistent with pricing. He wondered if the unusual mark-ups were a parting shot directed at license holders.

“Mark-ups [on wholesale liquor] are all over the board,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to any of their pricing.”

Though he hasn’t been happy with the process of the takeover, he does hope that the DLC under Cowger and the commissioners will have “more consistency and transparency” than the LCB.

“We’re expecting, we’re hoping,” he said.

But even with Buxbaum looking for a strong relationship between the DLC and licensees, he’s still emphatic about his desire to take the commission up on the sunset provision, a clause that Church has gone on record promising not to attempt to dissolve.

“I hope the sun does set,” said Buxbaum.