THE PUBLIC monopoly in Montgomery County that distributes millions of cases of beer, wine and spirits annually to 1,000 county restaurants, bars and liquor stores is notorious for systematic dysfunction. Its problems include shabby customer service; inaccurate, damaged and incomplete deliveries; and a miserable selection of products.
If ever a public enterprise were ripe for privatization, it’s this one; the ineptitude of the county’s Department of Liquor Control, an 80-year-old remnant of post-Prohibition days, is notorious. But Montgomery has proved unequal to the task.
After months of handwringing and acrimonious debate, County Executive Isiah Leggett unveiled a proposal that he called “privatization,” which in fact is very little of the sort. Mr. Leggett’s initiative is mainly window dressing, and unlikely to fix or even significantly improve the DLC’s woeful warehouse and wholesale operation, which is reviled by restaurateurs, bar owners and other clients.
Under Mr. Leggett’s plan, the county would retain its liquor monopoly, along with more than $30 million in annual profits it reaps, some of which helps pay debt service on county borrowing to build roads. The DLC would be subsumed into a newly minted Liquor Authority, whose board of directors would be named by the county executive, who in turn would hire a chief executive.
True, the liquor authority would be free of some onerous regulations under which the DLC now labors, including county procurement and personnel rules. In theory, the board of directors and new chief executive might bring a more business-minded approach to the agency’s management. Still, that’s a far cry from actual privatization, which is the only way to ensure real efficiency in an enterprise that in most other places is in the hands of business, not government.
Mr. Leggett was understandably loath to lose the proceeds from the monopoly, but in the context of Montgomery’s $5 billion budget those were small change; and the portion of liquor profits that paid debt service could have been replaced. The county regularly deals with larger jolts to its finances, and could have absorbed this one, too.
The real obstacle to privatization seems to be a reluctance to do battle with the union that represents some 350 DLC employees who staff the warehouse, delivery trucks and 25 county-run liquor stores. When state legislation, sponsored by Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery), was introduced in Annapolis to put the question of abolishing the monopoly to voters, almost no one in the county’s all-Democratic delegation supported it. Union leaders said opposition was described by several lawmakers as vehement, featuring threats that DLC workers would be laid off and left to live on the streets.
The cost of kowtowing to the union is continued shoddy service. Montgomery consumers will pay the price.