2015 | News

Committee Begins Look at Liquor Control Reform

Meeting sets the stage for a series of hearings through March

George Leventhal

A newly-formed ad hoc Committee on Liquor Control met on Friday in Rockville for the first time with an eye toward reforming a system that has been in place in Montgomery County since after the repeal of Prohibition.

The three-hour meeting set the stage for a series of hearings to consider ways to increase privatization of the liquor control system. Three more overview sessions are planned through March.

“We’re off to a good start,” said County Council President George Leventhal after the meeting. “We set a good tone.”

Montgomery County is the last county in Maryland to control the sale and distribution of beer, wine and liquor through a county board. A county report released Feb. 10 laid out five options for the county’s liquor control system, from leaving it as it is to an array of private distribution alternatives.

But privatization would come with a steep cost to the county. Alcohol sales contribute up to $43 million to the county, according to the report. With some $130 million in outstanding bond obligations, Leventhal said, total privatization would not be an option for Montgomery County.

Levanthal said he was impressed with the crowd of 90 or more people who came to listen in on the hearing, a crowd that included beer and wine store owners and union members.

“If anything surprised me, it was the degree of interest and the number of interested parties,” he said.

Reform critics say increasing privatization may not be worth the cost to the county.

On its website, the county made its case for keeping the Liquor Control Board in place.

"Local liquor control has served Montgomery County well," it posted." It contributes $30 million in annual profit to the County – helping us to fund schools, transportation, help for the vulnerable in our midst, and more. It helps to keep taxes lower. We have lower alcohol consumption and higher revenue for public purposes than other jurisdictions. There are not liquor stores on every corner. Our system makes it harder for underage individuals to purchase alcohol and provides more education for the public and for servers as well."

But businesses that depend on alcohol sales complain about the county system, which they say results in poor selection and bureaucracy. 

“Even with good people, with the best of intentions, trying to serve the consumer preferences of a million residents with one monopoly distributor is destined to fail,” County Councilman Roger Berliner wrote in the Gazette. “By almost every measure, our monopoly fails us. Residents drive to Virginia to buy alcohol; our restaurants complain of poor service and poor choice; microbreweries hesitate to locate here; and young and old spend entertainment dollars elsewhere that could be spent at home. These aren’t insignificant impacts.”