Bethesda Business Leaders Hear from Leggett, Floreen on Alcohol Monopoly

Bethesda Business Leaders Hear from Leggett, Floreen on Alcohol Monopoly

County Council president says meeting was "cordial" despite Chamber of Commerce's official stance that the county's monopoly on alcohol should end

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Via Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council President Nancy Floreen on Wednesday came to the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce to meet with business leaders on the other side of the county’s alcohol debate.

Floreen told Bethesda Beat the off-the-record meeting in Bethesda was “cordial” even though she did acknowledge “it’s a challenge to share information with people who have already made their mind up.”

Leggett and Floreen were defending the county’s unique alcohol control model—in which the county government controls all alcohol distribution and retail sales of liquor—in a room of some of the most ardent detractors of the system.

The debate has become particularly heated in the past few weeks after a group of state delegates, led by District 16 Del. Bill Frick, said it will propose a bill that would put the county’s alcohol monopoly up for a vote on the November ballot.

The referendum would ask county voters if the county’s alcohol control system should be opened to private wholesalers and liquor retailers.

County leaders, including Leggett, Floreen and seven of the other eight County Council members, have defended the system and the roughly $30 million in annual profit it brings in for the county.

They’ve also pointed to improvements being made to the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) that they say should quell the concerns restaurant and beer and wine store owners have about distribution and ordering problems.

Related: See recent Bethesda Beat stories on the fight over Montgomery County’s control of alcohol

Gino Renne, president of the county employees union that represents the approximately 350 DLC workers, has also defended the system and called for an ethics investigation of Frick.

Heather Dlhopolsky, chairwoman of the chamber’s board, said the chamber has made ending the county’s alcohol monopoly a priority for at least three years.

While she wouldn’t discuss what was said in Wednesday’s meeting with Leggett and Floreen, she did address a letter Leggett’s office made public in which the county executive detailed his defense of the system to chamber President and CEO Ginanne Italiano.

“Similar arguments to the letter were presented [in the meeting]. Nothing in the county executive’s letter changes the chamber’s support for ending the monopoly,” Dlhopolsky said. “We’re not saying the money isn’t a concern. We’re saying ending the monopoly is the right policy and there are things that could come about as a result of that policy that would need to be addressed.”

Dlhopolsky pointed to state lawmakers instituting a small excise tax on alcohol sold in Montgomery County, a method others have suggested is a way to make up some of the $30 million the county could lose in DLC profits.

County leaders have countered that it’s unrealistic to expect state lawmakers to agree to allowing a new alcohol excise tax.

“I know that some people are saying it’s never going to happen, but to me that’s not a reason to write that off as a possible solution,” Dlhopolsky said.

Floreen said that while she doesn’t think she changed anyone’s mind, she did think “the chamber members are learning that this is a more complicated issue than they may have understood.”

“We all agree the county’s control of the distribution of liquor is something of an anachronism, but it’s a money-making anachronism,” Floreen said. “For us to undo that, as far as we’re concerned, the end result is it would cost taxpayers somewhere around $30 million. That money will be transferred to private distributors that largely work out of Baltimore. It’s a distribution of wealth from Montgomery County taxpayers to Baltimore distributors.”

Floreen said the meeting was “cordial and that we’re all friends.” Dlhopolsky said that while the chamber and county elected officials often disagree, the alcohol issue has become especially heated.

“Council members and the county executive certainly have interests that they need to represent and keep in mind. Those interests are different from the interests the chamber represents,” Dlhopolsky said. “But I think all sides on this one seem to be really riled up. I think from some of the elected officials, it seems to be a personal matter. We need to remember this is just business and reasonable minds can differ.”

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