It is not only the azaleas and cherry blossoms that appear annually on the landscape. In Montgomery County, I have found an annual crop of charges that the liquor department is guilty of crimes, cronyism, mismanagement, excessive prices, inconvenient hours, encouragement of alcoholism and just about every other evil in modern society.
In the wake of these charges follows the inevitable question: "What's a nice county like you doing in a business like this?"
The reflexive reaction of elected officials who did not enter public service for the purpose of looting our neighbors is to say, "The heck with it. Let's just walk away from liquor control and sales." This is true even when the grand jury finds no wrongdoing in your administration, as the grand jury did this week in Montgomery County. I submit that it would be irresponsible to walk away from liquor controls.
There are three different goals we are pursuing at the same time. First, we are trying to control liquor sales for the purpose of moderating its use. Thus, we try to restrict its availability and to keep stores away from schools, churches and areas where youngsters congregate. We do not stay open to all hours to encourage impulse buying. We avoid flamboyant advertising. Our Northern Virginia neighbors achieve the same restraints through state control.
A second goal of the country program is to provide some convenience to our citizens. The 21 dispensaries carry a range of wines and liquors, plus beer by the case in returnable bottles. (Until we get a state law or regionwide laws to outlaw the "throwaways," we can try to set a good example by not selling them ourselves.)
A recent study by an outside consultant showed that retail prices charged in our dispensaries are competitive in our area. Our range of product lines is extensive (although several wine buffs complain that our choices do not match their palates). We also sell a line of mixers as a convenience. However, we do not give lollipops to youngsters who come with their parents. That's one retail sales technique we don't copy.
On the other side of service is revenue to the county -- the third goal. The county government's liquor department turns over revenues derived from sales (to call this payment from excess of revenue over costs a "profit" generates a metaphysical debate we really don't need here). The bottom line is that if we lost the liquor sales revenues ($6.1 million in FY82) our real estate tax would have to be increased by 7 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The suggestion has been made that the county could simply place a tax on every bottle of wine, distilled spirits or beer and raise as much money as it wants in this way. This would be outlawed as a sales tax. In Maryland, the sales tax is a monopoly of the state.
Franchising would bring with it disputes involving standards for issuing a franchise, policing of the conditions and revocation of franchises. We would simply be substituting one collection of problems for another and losing revenue in the bargain.
We have just gone through a rigorous exercise to produce a budget that would lower the tax rate by 4 cents to offset the unavoidable transit tax increase of that amount. To achieve this cut, we had to schedule elimination of 200 jobs from the county payroll and reduce some services. The thought of trying to absorb a large loss of revenue gives me more discomfort than even the ceaseless attacks we receive as an almost inevitable byproduct of these operations.
The troubles of our agency are partially the product of diffuse and sometimes conflicting goals. Restaurants and country clubs that are required to buy alcoholic beverages from the county want lower prices and more expeditious handling of their orders. Shops that sell wine and beer not only buy from the county but also compete with dispensaries. We eliminated the short-term experiment of selling cold beer and six-packs in seven of our 21 dispensaries because we thought it to be unfair competition to these retailers. This meant a slight loss of convenience to a citizen who might want to buy a bottle of Scotch and a six-pack on the same shopping trip.
The Chamber of Commerce wants us out of the retail business altogether. My GOP opponent in the 1978 election agreed. The dailies agree. My friends who worry about my political and personal well-being agree. I disagree.
I know that there are management problems with the county government's Department of Liquor Control (DLC). There have been a half-dozen studies in the last four years, each finding fault with DLC and each recommending remedies. As DLC grew to its present size, it did not mature in its organizational and managerial capacity. A recent comprehensive study provided the county council and us with what we think is a reorganization plan that will bring better order and operations. We are committed to its implementation.
Before making that grand gesture of wiping our hands clean of liquor and its filthy lucre, bear in mind that unless we raise taxes, we would have to reduce the budget by $6.1 million. To give some idea of what $6.1 million involved, all of the following together cost $6.1 million: 14 additional policemen; the county Office of Consumer Affairs; the county Commission for Women; the county's share of the costs of Head Start and the Boyd's Day Care program; all economic development programs; the Human Relations Commission; the county subsidy to the Housing Opportunities Commission; and the county supplemental payments for welfare.
When the slings and arrows get so painful that I am tempted to join the "let's chuck the whole thing" crowd, I think of the pain of deciding which services to cut or which taxes or fees to raise in this inflationary period. Then, having assessed the relative pain of the two alternatives, all I do is grit my teeth and resume reading the consultant's management report on how to improve DLC's efficiency.