Tim Adams, who is the current Mayor of Bowie and is running for Comptroller of Maryland, said in an interview last week with radio station WNST that he opposes MoCo’s liquor monopoly. In response to a question about increasing liquor taxes (on which he adopted no hard position), Adams said:
I think Montgomery County needs to get out of the liquor business.
Radio Host: Tell folks who may not be from Montgomery County what that issue is and why you feel that way.
Adams: Well, because, what it is, they end up having almost like a board that regulates and establishes the liquor and all the things that goes on with that. And I think there are three things that I will just say, because I know our time is getting short, but you gotta look at it as – you know, we really need to make sure that we… by doing it that way, we lack choice. You know, I think if you bring in competition and allow people to do that, I think it will increase the choice that the citizens of Montgomery have. I think it would improve service. I think that maybe some who feels there’s a lack of service, but again, with that competition you get that. And then most importantly, by continuing to do it this way, you end up with higher prices because you have added bureaucracy on top of it. So I believe that the citizens of Montgomery are ready for them to get out of that business and allow competition to come in and support.
Adams also said he supports allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine. So far, Delegate Brooke Lierman is the only other declared candidate for comptroller.
Adams’s comments on MoCo’s liquor monopoly appear at 21:28 of the video below.
According to a mass email sent by Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Fariba Kassiri, Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS) Director Bob Dorfman is leaving his position effective today. The email is reprinted below.
Subject Line: Bob Dorfman/Acting ABS Director
From: Kassiri, Fariba Sent: Monday, December 14 2020 To: #ABS All Cc: #MCG.Department and Office Directors; #MCG.SeniorEAAContacts; #MCG.Legislative Branch Directors
Effective today, Bob Dorfman will be moving on from his position as Director of Alcohol Beverage Services. On behalf of the County Executive, I want to thank Bob for his 4 years of service to Montgomery County Government and acknowledge his significant accomplishments during that time. ABS would not be the success it is today without his leadership and vision. I thank him for his many contributions and wish him well in his future endeavors.
Kathie Durbin will be Acting ABS Director until a permanent director is appointed.
It’s difficult to describe just how badly the liquor monopoly was doing when Dorfman, a former Mariott executive, was hired to run it four years ago. The monopoly had suffered critical delivery outages in the week between Christmas and New Year’s two years in a row. It was riddled with crime and abuse, with employees skimming booze and selling it for cash, driving drunk in county trucks and running the warehouse with sticky notes. Licensees were so upset at the monopoly’s failures, especially with regards to special orders, that Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) introduced a bill to allow county voters to end it. (I organized a coalition to support Frick’s bill.)
Dorfman’s success was to do what prior leaders had promised to do for years: run the organization like a business. Even some of the monopoly’s harshest critics conceded that, under Dorfman, the department’s delivery accuracy and service improved. Special orders were still an issue but there were no more week-long outages during holiday periods. Dorfman’s performance was good enough that pressure to abolish the monopoly eased off, at least for a little while. One caveat: Dorfman’s pursuit of the bottom line was great for the monopoly but not always for licensees. He instituted a new bottle fee for licensees at county liquor stores and blocked reform passed by the General Assembly to allow private stores to sell spirits.
Dorfman was also an aggressive defender of his organization, going after both Council Member Hans Riemer and Seventh State founder David Lublin in public. When Riemer found out that county liquor stores were losing money and suggested shutting them down, Dorfman called him “ill informed” and said he “obviously doesn’t care much” about county employees. No other department head has said such things about a sitting Council Member in recent memory!
Departing department directors often take extended departures, with their last days scheduled for weeks or months after their announcements. That’s not the case with Dorfman, who is out effective today. That makes me wonder whether he is leaving on good terms with the administration. In any case, his example offers a lesson: if the county wants the liquor monopoly to perform like a business, it has to hire someone to run it who knows how to run a business. Dorfman was that guy. We shall see if County Executive Marc Elrich heeds that lesson when hiring Dorfman’s successor.
This morning, a delivery truck operated by MoCo’s liquor monopoly crashed in Aspen Hill. The crash occurred on Connecticut Avenue near the intersection with Georgia Avenue, shutting down southbound traffic and sending countless cases of liquor splattering across multiple road lanes.
The first indication of the crash was this set of pictures posted on Facebook by a person who came across the crash scene.
From Piringer’s reporting, what is known right now is that there were two occupants of the truck, both of whom were transported away by ambulance, and that the driver was trapped and had to be extricated from the truck. Traffic was completely shut down on southbound Connecticut Avenue and limited to one lane northbound. The mess will take some time to clear.
At this time, the cause of the accident is unknown.
Update: NBC4 has video of how this crash affected seven lanes of traffic.
Most MoCo politicians don’t like talking about the liquor monopoly. Many of them admit that it is inefficient and archaic in private, but they don’t want to give up its revenues and they worry about offending the union that represents its employees. Our site traffic indicates that Seventh State readers care a lot about this topic and some of our liquor monopoly posts really pop. Politicians who get out front on this will benefit.
In a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich, Council Member Hans Riemer has proposed that liquor licensees be allowed to defer payments owed to the county’s Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS). Specifically, Riemer wrote, “I am writing to request that ABS allow restaurant licensees to defer payments or make partial payments on all products purchased from ABS for the next 12 months.” Riemer notes the extreme financial losses being experienced by licensees and suggests that the county “explore options that could allow the County to smooth the revenue impact of this proposal over a longer period of time.”
We reprint Riemer’s letter below. We intend to print the executive’s response when we receive it.
As your Comptroller and as a Montgomery County resident, this story makes me viscerally frustrated. There is no constructive purpose served by the continued existence of our government-run alcohol monopoly. It is inefficient, costly and unresponsive to the needs of its customers.
Now, at a time when our restaurants, bars and taverns are looking at possible financial ruin as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are fighting a daily battle simply to survive, we get this tone-deaf ruling from the Department of Liquor Control. By prohibiting the sale of liquor and mixed drinks for carryout and home delivery, the DLC is acting in violation of both Governor Hogan’s Executive Order and a basic standard of common sense.
If there ever was a time for an outdated government agency to flaunt its administrative prerogatives, this certainly isn’t it. Hoping the DLC will reverse this ruling and do everything it possibly can to support our local, community-based businesses. Or, failing that, at least get out of the way while the rest of us help them #KeepTheLightsOn.
Franchot even took out a Facebook ad for this post. At the moment, his post has 116 reactions, 40
comments and – most critically – 27 shares.
The original blog post has been shared countless more times across
With outrage growing against the monopoly, it must lift
the ban or face a renewed push to abolish it.
Battered by shutdowns of dine-in service, restaurants across Maryland and beyond are taking a severe beating. As a measure of modest compensation, Governor Larry Hogan has allowed restaurants and bars to engage in something unprecedented: takeout and delivery service of alcohol. That partly applies in MoCo too, but there is a holdup.
Nepenthe Brewing Company in Baltimore advertises takeout cocktails.
The liquor monopoly enjoys a retail monopoly on spirits sales and jealously protects it. For example, after the General Assembly passed a law three years ago allowing the monopoly to contract with private stores to sell spirits, the monopoly simply refused to enter into any such contracts. Loosening its retail spirits sales monopoly might damage its profits, which are the only reason it continues to exist. (Profits are no problem at the moment as the monopoly’s business is booming while folks are stocking up.)
The issue matters because it affects the employment of a key category of personnel in the restaurant industry: bartenders. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that MoCo and Frederick establishments together employed 1,410 bartenders in 2017, so at least 1,000 of them work in MoCo owing to the comparative size of the counties. The two counties employed an additional 2,680 people classified as “dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers.” When takeout and delivery is restricted to beer and wine, bartenders are not needed because anyone can handle bottles and cans. But when spirits beverages are allowed, bartenders are necessary.
Clavel Mezcaleria – Taqueria in Baltimore has an online menu of pre-bottled cocktails.
One restaurant owner who contacted me put MoCo’s cocktail
ban in economic terms. “Maryland allows
it. Montgomery County does not. Baltimore can sell a margarita to go. We cannot.
That’s my point. The DLC [liquor monopoly] restricts us again. If they allowed it I could keep some of my
staff employed instead of on the unemployment line.”
So what’s more important?
The continued employment of a thousand MoCo bartenders? Or the liquor monopoly’s long-time retail
spirits monopoly? County officials, you
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has announced that he is “focused on building a 21st century economy that will help the County maintain its leadership position in the State, while being more competitive in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region.” And how will that be done?
By marketing the county’s 1930s-era soviet liquor
monopoly, of course!
The county’s Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS), formerly known as the Department of Liquor Control, has a monopoly on wholesale distribution of alcohol from which only small, local craft breweries and distilleries are exempt. Through its county liquor stores, ABS also has a monopoly on off-premises retail sales of spirits. This structure has been in place since the end of prohibition.
The original purpose of the liquor monopoly was to “control certain obnoxious practices” and “keep the county an attractive place to live.” Now, however, the purpose of the monopoly is to make money. During the current fiscal year, ABS is projected to contribute $28 million to the general fund and an additional $9 million to pay off county debt service. Despite its overall profitability, ABS is under heavy pressure to make even more money for four primary reasons.
First, the county projected a $100 million revenue shortfall back in December. It’s unknown whether that number will change when the executive’s recommended budget is released next month, but if there is a shortfall of close to that amount, that’s a problem.
An excerpt from an email by the county executive calling for a 21st Century economy and simultaneously promoting the liquor monopoly.
ABS has now proposed a solution for increasing the stores’ profitability: it wants to rebrand them. In a council session on February 20, the council reviewed a letter from the county attorney asking for permission to hire outside counsel specializing in trademarks to secure a new name. The county’s chief administrative officer told the council that the specific name being considered is “Cork and Barrel,” which a simple Google search confirms is widely used around the country (including in Maryland). The initial outlay to the trademark attorney is expected to be less than $6,000. But if ABS does go through with a name change, there will be many additional expenses for logo design and changes to facilities and equipment. Last summer, when water and sewer utility WSSC proposed a name change, the projected expenses totaled $850,000. Council Member Evan Glass raised the experience of WSSC and said, “If a government monopoly or a quasi-government monopoly needs a marketing and outreach strategy then there is a problem.”
The county council has almost no power to control the liquor monopoly under state law. But the General Assembly does and its vision for the monopoly is very different from the Elrich administration’s. In 2017, the General Assembly passed a state law enabling the monopoly to contract with private stores to allow them to sell spirits. (Right now, only county liquor stores may sell hard alcohol – a crucial advantage for the county.) But ABS has ignored the law’s intent and has so far refused to allow private retail sales of spirits. Its rationale is understandable: without its retail spirits monopoly, its stores might never be profitable. No dissenting votes were cast in Annapolis against the law that the monopoly now flouts. Will MoCo’s state legislators hold it accountable?
As for the name change and marketing expenses, consider
this. State law requires private beer
and wine stores to purchase products from the county liquor monopoly’s
wholesale operation. Their payments will
now be used to rebrand and market the county liquor stores that are in direct
competition with them. In essence, they
will be required to pay for the county’s attempt to raid their market share and
take away their business.
How is this a legitimate function of government?
How can Montgomery County do this and claim that it is
MoCo faces a choice.
It can move into the 21st Century and allow competition. Or it can have a 1930s-era soviet liquor
District 18 House candidate Mila Johns has sent out a mailer calling for an end to MoCo’s liquor monopoly. The mailer contains an endorsement from Comptroller Peter Franchot, a hero to monopoly opponents who has been calling for its end for years. This is the first mailer we can recall seeing on this subject and we appreciate Johns’s courage in calling this question so publicly.