Change is coming to the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control. That was the one thing everyone agreed on at the first hearing held by a special ad hoc committee created to consider deregulating the agency after our News4 I-Team investigation.
Montgomery County has operated under a four-tier system for almost 80 years, controlling the sale of all alcohol to stores and restaurants in the county. Every glass of beer, every bottle of wine and every drop of liquor must be sold out of the county’s government warehouse.
Council member Hans Riemer created the committee because he says the government should get out of the beer and wine business.
“We’re the only county in Maryland, and I believe we're the only local government in America, that has a monopoly on wholesale," he told roughly 100 people sitting in the audience.
The committee is deciding the future of Liquor Control by considering a list of five options, which include completely deregulating alcohol sales, moving to a system similar to Virginia’s ABC stores or only controlling the sale of hard liquor. The committee agreed any sort of deregulation will be a very complicated business involving changing state laws, eliminating county jobs and potentially hiking the alcohol tax to an additional 10 cents per dollar.
The hearing was the first time DLC Director George Griffin spoke publicly since the 4 I-Team investigation, which caught employees drinking on the job and accusations of internal theft from beer trucks.
"We're not sitting here and saying everything is great, don't change a thing,” Griffin told the committee. “Quite the opposite."
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He proposed creating an authority that would give the agency more control over employee hiring and major financial decisions.
Council member Marc Elrich responded, "I do think if you're going to operate a business, which Liquor Control is, you actually have to operate it like a business and I don't think we're there truly."
Everyone on the committee was concerned about a council report that found 61 percent of restaurants and stores surveyed said DLC isn't giving them what they need to stay in business, prompting Council member Rodger Berliner to state, “Our restaurants have been, and remain, so terribly unhappy with the quality of service they get.”
He looked at Griffin and said, “I'm sure you're aware I had a restaurant owner come up to me seven days ago and say, ‘Council member Berliner I ordered 45 cases of wine and I got five.’"
Committee members also said they’re worried people are going to surrounding counties that don’t regulate sales to get their alcohol. They pointed to the council report, which found Montgomery County sales indicate its residents “consume” an average of 5.6 million gallons less than surrounding Frederick, Howard and Prince George’s counties.
Almost all the committee members stated they didn’t believe Montgomery County drank less than its neighbors.
"They are voting, if you will, with their feet,” Berliner said. “They are purchasing product elsewhere."
The committee is scheduled to discuss problems with management, security and other issues exposed in our investigation at its next hearing on March 6.