SNOW HILL- Bobby Cowger showed the Worcester County Commissioners that he had his own exit strategy from the liquor business- resignation.
In the latest twist of the ongoing saga to dissolve the county-run Department of Liquor Control, Cowger, who has run the DLC since 2011, handed in his letter of resignation to the county and will be relinquishing control of its daily operations on April 1.
“I’ve had enough,” said Cowger. “The battle is over and my job is going to be going away, so it’s time to start thinking about my future.”
Cowger, who has served two non-consecutive terms as a commissioner, and is the only person in the county to have been a commissioner, the former head of the county LCB (Liquor Control Board) and head of the current county distillery, will step out of the public eye and will be taking a job in the construction business. However, it doesn’t appear that he’ll be out of the public spotlight for long.
“My plan is to run for the county commissioner seat in District 1 in 2018,” said Cowger.
When questioned if there was a link between the county’s exit strategy and its handling of the liquor issue and his future run for county commissioner, Cowger left little to the imagination.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We worked very hard to turn around the liquor department in this county for the past five years, and I think we did that, but because of a few people who want to see the DLC gone, what we’ve done has been tainted.”
Cowger says he vehemently disagrees with the county’s exit strategy from the liquor business and argued in public meetings in recent weeks that the county should opt for a three-year phase out strategy in order to liquidate its booze assets.
“When the county gets out of the liquor business by the drop dead date of 2017, the taxpayers better open up their wallet,” said Cowger. “Its’ not going to cost the $1 million or so they keep talking about. It’s going to be more like $4 million to $5 million.”
Cowger says the department owes the general fund $3.6 million, and the county is on the hook for $500,000 in the remaining balance on the DLC’s warehouse mortgage, $80,000 in remaining balance on the Pocomoke retail location and three separate leases with the other county liquor stores including two in Ocean City and one near Berlin.
County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who has been a vocal supporter of the county’s push to enact its exit strategy and get out of the liquor business, sees Cowger’s tenure differently.
“Mr. Cowger has no right to sit here and blame anyone for how this situation has been handled,” said Mitrecic. “The DLC is financially in the tank, and Bobby has been at the helm the entire time. If he’s going to start blaming people, he needs to look in the mirror.”
Mitrecic says Cowger’s estimates on tax payer burden only make sense if the county is unable to sell off its assets. He asserted his confidence that the inventory would be liquidated and the stores would be sold as stated in the county exit strategy.
Other county commissioners expressed shock and surprise at the news of Cowger’s resignation.
“It’s a surprise, but all I have to say is that I wish Bobby the best,” said Commissioner Chip Bertino.
Merrill Lockfaw ,Jr., who took over Cowger’s seat in District 1 in 2010, has been a big supporter of Cowger’s efforts at the DLC.
“I guess I’m a little surprised,” said Lockfaw. “But, he knew that his job was going to be coming to an end and anyone would be looking into finding a way to secure their future income. Bobby was very dedicated to his work.”
However, Lockfaw was much more surprised to find out that Cowger had his eye on his county commissioner seat.
“Competition is always good and I think it’ll be something where we’ll remain friends afterwards,” said Lockfaw. “I’m sure it’s very hard for Bobby to accept that this is all coming to an end and it’s time to move on. Feelings run very deep.”
Feelings may run deep, but the DLC’s losses have run deeper, as the county was forced to take $400,000 out of the reserve funds last year to make up for a $492,000 loss in profits.
Since the DLC’s inception in 2011, the once mighty liquor monopoly has slowly transformed into a fast sinking ship from the revenue perspective.
Yet, most commissioners believed Cowger was so dedicated to his job, that he would essentially tie himself to the mast of that ship as it sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
“I always saw him as the captain that was going to go down with his sinking ship,” said Mitrecic.
Current County Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said the commissioners’ decision to discontinue liquor operations “apparently prompted Mr. Cowger to resign as the DLC director. We wish Bobby well in all his future endeavors.”
Cowger was working in the private sector in 2011 when former County Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason came to him and personally asked him to help run the newly formed Department of Liquor Control after a price fixing scandal and Comptroller’s investigation led to the abolishment of the former LCB.
Cowger was hesitant, but said he wanted to help the county keep the revenue, its’ assets, and the jobs.
“Today, I’d put us up against any department in the county when it comes to transparency,” said Cowger. “Nothing this department does nor even the old department did, compares to the corruption that exists today from the wholesalers. When the DLC goes away, there will be a proliferation of liquor stores in this county.”
Whether or not that is true will be revealed further down the road, but what is right-in-front of the county commissioners now is trying to enact an exit strategy from the booze business without the head of the booze department.
“It’s certainly going to be more difficult for us,” said Lockfaw. “We will have to move very cautiously and look at the numbers on a weekly basis.”