Montgomery County officials discussed at length Friday afternoon several problems regarding inventory and security issues at the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), which handles the wholesale distribution of beer, wine and liquor in the county.
The concerns arose during a meeting of the County Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Liquor Control, which is evaluating the operations of the department and debating how it could be improved, or possibly privatized.
Edward Blansitt, the county’s inspector general, said his department investigated allegations ranging from security cameras not being operational inside the DLC warehouse to side doors being left propped open that left the warehouse “vulnerable to theft.” He said his agency had no way to know how long the cameras were not operating.
DLC Director George Griffin disputed these claims. He said only certain cameras were not working in the new warehouse the department moved to about a year and a half ago. Those cameras weren’t focusing properly or sight lines were obstructed, according to Griffin.
He said employees stepping outside to smoke left the doors propped open during working hours and that the department is “convinced it wasn’t affiliated with theft.”
Since the allegations surfaced, Griffin said the doors have been alarmed and the cameras have been fixed.
A discussion at the meeting also focused on allegations raised in a NBC4 investigative report that caught employees drinking while driving a department delivery truck and inventory shortages being reported by drivers. The NBC4 report alleged the shortages enabled employees to skim products from the trucks to resell to store owners.
Griffin said the two employees caught drinking were terminated and delivery teams are now regularly rotated to prevent collusion. He said prior to the news investigation the department had attempted to remove the employees from their jobs, but were unable to do so.
Council member Hans Riemer, who chairs the ad hoc committee, called the findings involving illegal activity “alarming, disturbing and shocking.”
Multiple council members criticized the department’s inventory controls that make it difficult for management to crack down on possible thieves.
Prior to the NBC4 investigation, the department used a paper system to report “shorts” on trucks. Shorts happen when the product on the truck, which is loaded by warehouse staff, did not include everything a customer ordered. Many trucks also have overages, which means too much product was placed on the truck, according to officials.
Blansitt said that last June just nine of 206 trucks were accurately loaded. He said the trucks would come back to the warehouse and report they were either short or overloaded. These reports would be noted on paper tallies, which were collected and put in a box, which was placed in a storage area.
“But nothing had been done with them,” Blansitt said.
Griffin said the problem was overblown and that 99.8 percent of beer deliveries—which he said the news report focused on–were accurate. He said the DLC is currently in the process of switching to a new inventory management system that uses bar codes and scanners to track product.
Council member Marc Elrich called the paper inventory system “primitive,” and added the amount of theft was minimal compared to numbers in private sector retail.
Council President George Leventhal said comparing the DLC to the private industry isn’t the right thing to do, given that the county’s reputation is at stake.
“When there’s corruption in county government, that’s news,” Leventhal said. “Among the thing that Montgomery County has going for it is that we have a clean and honest government.”
DLC employees, clad in the yellow shirts of the union that represents them, were well represented in the audience. The committee’s recommendations could affect the jobs of the more than 300 DLC employees, all of whom are members of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents about 8,000 government employees in the county. The workers are employed as delivery drivers, warehouse staff and retail workers in the county-run stores the department operates.
The department also generates about $30 million in revenue each year for the county’s general fund—money that council members are keen on keeping, or figuring out how to replace if the department is restructured.
Gino Renne, the president of Local 1994, told the committee that most of the union employees are hardworking and honest.
“If you’re caught stealing or caught drinking while driving a Department of Liquor Control vehicle, then you can expect the union will not represent you,” Renne said. He said that the union told the two employees who were caught on camera by the news crew with alcohol to resign and they did.
While discussions at this meeting largely focused on operational concerns of the department, council members recommended that a workgroup be formed to discuss how to restructure the department to make it more effective.
Renne asked that any discussion on restructuring focus on how to make the department operate more like a business than a government bureaucracy.
“This department needs to be more nimble,” Renne said.