May. 15, 2011
With the flick of a pen, Gov. Martin O’Malley closed the curtains on the Worcester County Liquor Control Board.
The bill’s signing was vindication for the adversaries of the state-run, county-centered liquor wholesaler, who complained it favored some customers more than others, sold at erratic prices and prompted the Comptroller’s Office to investigate the LCB in 2010.
Now, attentions turn to how to bring the LCB under the umbrella of county government.
County Commissioners have formed a transition team to explore how the LCB functions and prepare it to become a county-run department. Bobby Cowger, a former County Commissioner and executive director of the LCB from 2001-05, has been tasked with heading up the team that will orchestrate the transition.
“The board has been very cooperative,” said Cowger, who says the relationship between the county and the LCB will prevent any disruption in buying or selling throughout the busy summer months. Cowger was hired as a part-time consultant and his salary is not to exceed $25,000 annually.
The sale of liquor and spirits throughout the county is scheduled to transition on July 1, the start of the busy Fourth of July weekend and well into the summer tourist season.
“The county doesn’t want to go in there and disrupt operations, because about 75 percent of the business the LCB does is in those four (summer) months,” Cowger said.
Changes in the works won’t drastically alter the everyday sale of liquor and spirits in the county, but will change a few things.
“We don’t want (people) to say they have just changed the sign on the door,” County Commissioner Bud Church said.
Lowering the prices restaurants and bars pay is one of the first changes the county is planning to make.
“(Prices) will probably be quite a bit lower than the LCB was charging before. That was the essence of the problem,” Church said. “In some cases, (licensees) were paying 35 or 40 percent above markup. We are going to be charging between 15 and 18 percent.”
The decision to maintain some type of government involvement in the sale of alcohol was seen as a way to preserve the revenue flow provided by sale of alcohol in tough economic times.
For the next five years, licensees have to buy their wine and liquor from the LCB. After 2016, they will have the chance to opt out and buy from any wholesaler in the state.
Another transitional change will include transferring power from the LCB’s board of directors to the County Commissioners.
“The three members will no longer be running the operation,” said John Phoebus, lawyer and spokesman for the LCB, referring to current LCB members Donald Hastings, William Wilkinson and Joseph Jackson. “The County Commissioners will essentially take the place of the board of directors.”
Executive Director Brian Sturgeon is expected to stay on as part of the new county-run department.
“Every indication we have is that, at least for summer 2011, Brian Sturgeon is going to stay on to help with the transition,” Phoebus said. “Although I don’t think he is going to stay forever.”
Everyday employees, including support staff and truck drivers, will most likely not lose their jobs after the transition, but will become county employees.
“We are going to continue to work for the next six, eight, 12 months the way we are now until we learn the system,” said Church, adding LCB employees will be a great asset during the transition. “We aren’t the experts in running the LCB and want to keep as many employees on as we can.”
Sen. Jim Mathias, D-38-Worcester, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said his job was to get the legislation passed and signed into law. He is planning to step back in the coming months.
“I gave my word to local government that I was not going to mingle in their affairs,” Mathias said. “As far as the daily operations are concerned, I have full faith in the county.”