2015 | News

County Council Members to Proceed with Partial Privatization as Liquor Control Department Implements Improvements

Council members hope to allow store and restaurant owners to purchase 'special orders' independent of county's liquor control department

A Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control truck makes deliveries in Bethesda

Aaron Kraut

The much-maligned Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control on Friday offered a long list of improvements it’ll make to better serve those who own restaurants and beer and wine stores.

It wasn’t enough, at least to some County Council members on an ad hoc committee charged with reviewing the county’s unique control model for warehousing, selling and distributing all alcohol in the county.

“There’s a lot of activity. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be a while until licensees really experience an improvement,” said council member Hans Riemer, who chaired the committee. “These things are taking longer than anybody would like.”

Riemer said the committee will draft a resolution expressing the council’s preference for privatizing the special order process of craft beer, small production wines and non-mainstream liquors that are not regularly carried in the department’s stock inventory.

Problems with the county’s special order system are among the biggest complaints from licensees, many of whom have said they’ll receive late or incomplete special orders from the county.

The move could result in an approximate $5 million to $7 million hit to the $30 million the department earns for the county each year.

Council member Marc Elrich, also a member of the committee, said the possible loss of revenue is why he’s hoping the Department of Liquor Control can figure out how to better serve its customers.

“Before I go about dismantling or wrecking the asset, I want to make sure we’ve done everything possible to make sure the asset does what it has the capability of doing,” Elrich said. “Walking away from any money seems like not the right thing to do if you can fix the problem.”

Despite his concern over the financial ramifications of privatizing the special order system, Elrich criticized department officials for having “lost a lot of peoples’ confidence” when it comes to delivering alcohol orders.

Department of Liquor Control Director George Griffin said the department has been working to make general improvements for more than a year, though Friday was the first time it revealed its “improvement action plan.”

Last week, county chief administrative officer Timothy Firestine sent a memo outlining several steps the county is ready to take now to improve the department’s performance.

The county will waive a general hiring freeze affecting all other departments to allow Liquor Control to fill all vacant positions, will create a customer service call center to field complaints and initiate the action plan with more than 200 other steps.

Riemer advised department officials to continue with its action plan, because the privatization of special orders requires a tricky approval process.

Even if agreed upon by the full County Council, the move would require approval by state legislators in Annapolis. Riemer said the committee hopes to introduce the resolution in late June or early July and hold a public hearing on it before the council’s August recess.