WITH A grand jury investigation into the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control, there is the first sign of hope for uncovering what criminal activity -- if any -- has taken place in the department. With that process now under way, the county's political leaders can move on to a fundamental question: why is the county in the business of selling liquor, anyhow?

County officials say the original motivation was to make money. And there was also thought to be some security in the county's controlling liquor sales within its jurisdiction. But the county treasury does not make much money from the liquor department. In fact, it might make more money from taxes if there were better-run liquor stores in the county. Liquor at county stores is not cheaper than in privately run stores outside the county. And there is surely no indication that there is less drinking or less drunkenness in Montgomery County because the government controls the sale of liquor.

The liquor department, it is said by some, could be well run, but certain county businessmen have intentionally undermined it, through political schemes, so they can take over the lucrative liquor business and, so, why reward them? But even if these assumptions are right, the county liquor department remains an anachronism that should be done away with. Montgomery is the only county in the country to operate a liquor business. The rewards of the business do not merit the risk involved -- as Montgomery should know well by now. The county council has been slow to act on charges of crimes in the department. But it could do much to redeem itself by acting quickly to get the county out of selling liquor.