While nearly half a dozen states were considering privatizing their retail and wholesale liquor operations in 2010, one jurisdiction debated whether to bring its independent board under government control. Ultimately, Worcester County, MD decided to disband its state sanctioned, autonomous Liquor Control Board and replace it with a Department of Liquor Control, which operates under the direction of the County Commissioners.
The new department, which operates much like its counterpart in Montgomery County, MD, is headed by Director Robert Cowger, Jr., who answers not only to County Administrator Jerry Mason, but licensees and constituents as well.
The law outlining the change includes a sunset provision that would end the county’s monopoly on wholesale distribution of alcohol on or before 2016, something Cowger said benefits licensees. “They’ll have the option to buy products from either the county or distributors based on the best price available to them,” he says. “It protects the mom and pop establishments that can’t afford to buy products directly in a large enough quantity to receive discounted prices available to large bars and restaurants.”
Given the contentious meetings that preceded the legislation abolishing the LCB, Cowger’s biggest concern during the transition has been rebuilding trust with licensees and citizens, who accused the old board of changing prices, favoring certain brands over others and unnecessarily raising board members’ salaries. “The biggest challenge is building relationships and trust with licensees who are distrustful of autonomous oversight of wholesale liquor distribution,” Cowger says. “We’re striving to rebuild that trust through transparency of operations and an open door policy with licensees.”
The new department was set up just in time for tourist season, which is especially important in Worcester County. Nearly 90 percent of the county’s bars and restaurants operate in Ocean City, which has a year-round population of 7,000 but sees 300,000 visitors during the summer months. The county’s 200 licensees and six retail stores are especially dependent on the department during that influx.
“We provide delivery service to both licenses and retail twice a week and offer satellite product pickup on non-delivery days year round,” Cowger says. “Transparency, reliability and trust are the crux of our operations, and we mean to maintain that standard.”
The DLC is starting from scratch when it comes to pricing, trying to find a balance that will achieve all three of its missions: preserving local jobs, assuring service to small businesses and large establishments, and protecting and preserving revenues to the county and towns. Since the county is a small community, Cowger is in close communication with licensees and employees on a daily basis. His role as a former LCB executive director (from 2001 to 2005) and county commissioner led to the licensees requesting his appointment as director of the department. One DLC employee who had planned to retire even decided to stay on after his appointment.
“The licensees asked to have me appointed, which felt good because I knew that such a request comes from mutual trust,” Cowger says. “I can’t tell you what a confidence booster it was for me that the DLC is headed in the right direction and the employees trust me to lead it.”