Montgomery County officials are hoping to change the name of the county’s Department of Liquor Control to something, well, a little less controlling.
The proposed name — Alcohol Beverage Services — reflects an effort to move the department’s image away from its regulatory focus and toward customer service, said director Robert Dorfman, a former Marriott executive appointed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) at the end of 2016.
“The old name does not have the right connotation,” Dorfman said. “We’re not about controlling how people do business. Our job is to make sure our customers are well taken care of.”
Montgomery County is the most populous jurisdiction in Maryland, and the only one that directly controls the wholesale distribution of all alcohol in its borders — a vestige dating to the end of Prohibition.
Businesses that purchase alcohol must buy it from the county, not private wholesalers. In addition, while beer and wine can be sold at retail establishments, consumers can buy liquor only from a county-owned retail store.
The system has long been criticized for, among other things, its past poor performance in deliveries, ordering and reliability.
Dorfman said he’s been working to change that — modernizing the Gaithersburg warehouse where inventory is kept, buying new trucks for deliveries, sprucing up the county stores.
Jane Redicker, president and chief executive of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern that the proposed new name could sow confusion about the government’s role in alcohol sales in Montgomery and would not do much to help consumers frustrated by the county-run system.
The chamber’s position is that government should control liquor licenses and other alcohol-related enforcement, working with restaurants and hotels, but that the sale and distribution of it belongs with the private sector.
“Alcohol Beverage Services makes it seem like it’s a private company,” said Redicker, who added that when she ran the name by one member, the owner of a beer and wine store, she received a “Ha!” followed by a raspberry, in response.
Despite Dorfman’s efforts, she said she hasn’t heard about any great improvement at the department from her 473 members, many of which are restaurants that serve alcohol.
“The ones that I’ve spoken with, I mean, they’ve kind of accepted that right now you’ve got to deal with it,” she said.
Justin McInerny operates Bethesda-based Capital Beer and Wine, which specializes in uncommon and obscure vintages. He said the proposed name change is “semantics.”
“I can call my dog an elephant all I want, and she’s still a dog,” he said.
At the same time, McInerny said Dorfman and his team are “vastly superior” to previous regimes at the county agency. He said he has noticed an improvement in the department’s performance, especially on bread-and-butter products such as Budweiser beer or Kendall-Jackson wine.
But on special orders — dessert wines from Hungary, say — it’s as much of a headache as ever. “When I want to get six bottles of something obscure from Corsica, that just doesn’t jibe well with their system,” McInerny said. “If I want to get 10 cases of Corona, great, they make the trains run on time.”
Dorfman said that special orders were a “really serious issue” for the department two years ago but that changes have been made since then, including increasing the number of items carried in stock. He added that special orders, especially from far-flung areas, take time, and that the county — unlike many private distributors — is willing to place special orders.
“It would be hard to convince any distributor to bring in a special item that they already didn’t carry,” he said. “We’re actually bringing in special items for anybody who is placing an order. Which is really out of the ordinary but also causes unique problems.”
Changing the name of the department would require an act of the state legislature. Melanie Wenger, director of the county office of intergovernmental relations, said the chairs of the county delegation would have to introduce the legislation, and a public hearing would be held on it in Rockville. The legislation would be considered in Annapolis next year.
While there have been efforts to move to a privatized system in the past, they have not been successful. The department employs about 400 county workers, and alcohol-sale profits add about $30 million in revenue annually to the county’s budget — jobs and revenue not easily replaced, supporters of the current system note.
The president of the Municipal County Government Employees Organization Local 1994, which represents more than 300 liquor-control workers, said he is backing the name change.
“We’re in complete partnership to transition the department away from being a government bureaucracy to being a business enterprise that strives to fulfill the needs of consumers at all levels,” union president Gino Renne said, adding that success should eventually quiet critics who are pushing for privatization.
“At some point people are going to start saying, ‘Wait a minute — why do we want to tamper with success?’” Renne said. “‘This is working, we need to leave it alone.’”