Worcester to decide on county-owned liquor stores Referendum spearheaded by restaurant, bar owners

October 31, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Fed up with what they say are the high costs of buying booze, restaurant and bar owners in Maryland's beach resort are leading a referendum drive to scrap Worcester County's 62-year-old system of selling liquor through county-owned stores.

A battle of political signs and billboards has marked "Question A" as perhaps the hottest local issue facing county voters when they go to the polls Tuesday.

Critics call the county's liquor control board a throwback to Prohibition, but supporters say it's an efficient revenue source that pumps an average of $600,000 a year into Worcester's coffers and the budgets of Worcester's four municipalities.

Last summer, when bar and restaurant owners formed a lobbying group, Citizens for Private Enterprise, supporters of the existing system countered by creating their own organization, the wordy but descriptive Committee to Oppose the Referendum to Abolish the Liquor Control Board.

"This county seems to be among the last to move into the modern age," said John Fager, who owns the waterfront Ocean City restaurant that bears his name. "This system is nothing more than a hidden tax, a monopoly. There's no reason for the county to be in the liquor business."

Last year, Worcester's county commission and the Ocean City Council supported legislation to do away with the dispensary system, but Eastern Shore legislators balked, calling for a referendum instead of taking the issue to the General Assembly.

The liquor control board, which has between 30 and 45 full- and part-time employees, operates seven retail stores around the county and a warehouse in Snow Hill. The system dates to 1936, and only three other Maryland counties -- Wicomico, Somerset and Montgomery -- have retained similar operations.

"We feel that we're doing a good job for the citizens of the county," said board administrator Lacey Murray Jr. "We are not county employees; we don't cost the county anything. Our operating expenses are all paid by sales."

Restaurant and bar owners say they are willing to pay higher liquor license fees to make up for the money the county and municipalities would lose if the dispensary system were scrapped.

Patrons would benefit from lower prices in bars and restaurants, as well as in privately run liquor stores, where tourists would be more likely to buy their alcohol instead of bringing it with them, say Question A supporters.

"This system is costing us 20 or even 30 percent more than if we dealt directly with liquor distributors," said Layton Moore, who owns Seacrets, one of Ocean City's largest nightclubs. "This is just a dinosaur of a business."

Critics also complain that the system provides a meager return RTC to county and municipal governments, which share in "profits" generated by more than $7 million in liquor sales.

"The system is being run by people who have no real incentive to run it right," Moore said. "This is a tourist community, and they treat it like a small town."

Jim Hudson, one of five liquor control board members appointed by the governor who oversee the dispensary operation, says the issue is being driven by a handful of big Ocean City restaurant owners who would stand to gain the most by buying directly from liquor wholesalers.

"I think there's a simple word for it -- greed," Hudson said. "I don't think the county can afford to get out of it. We've averaged about $600,000 a year for the last 10 years. We've bought computers, we're current with the industry."

Hudson also denied accusations that liquor control board funds are being used in the campaign to defeat the referendum.

A 56-page finance statement filed last week with the Worcester elections office shows that supporters of the existing system have raised about $12,000 in three months, some of it in small donations from liquor store customers. Numerous handwritten notes detail volunteer hours and in-kind services contributed by supporters.

Citizens For Private Enterprise missed an Oct. 23 deadline and has not provided campaign finance data, according to Worcester County election officials.

Proponents of the current system say their chances are good for Tuesday's elections -- at least if history is any guide in Worcester.

"You know, four or five attempts to abolish the liquor control board have failed over the years," Hudson said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed it will fail again."

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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