Wicomico liquor dispensary legislation faces County Council questioning

Posted 1/17/23

County Executive Julie Giordano’s plan to make the first changes in decades to the way liquor is sold in Wicomico will have to wait a few more weeks before it can be advanced.

The new leader …

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Wicomico liquor dispensary legislation faces County Council questioning

Posted

County Executive Julie Giordano’s plan to make the first changes in decades to the way liquor is sold in Wicomico will have to wait a few more weeks before it can be advanced.

The new leader is proposing legislation that would allow liquor sales in up to 10 private stores across the county. The private stores would also be allowed to purchase their inventory from other sources, rather than from the county’s dispensary.

Taking a hybrid approach, the county-run dispensaries would remain open, but private business owners could apply for licenses to sell liquor.

The 10 new licenses would permit two stores in each of the county’s five councilmanic election districts, thereby eliminating the possibility of several liquor stores in concentrated areas.

To change the dispensary system, the Maryland General Assembly must sign off. On Tuesday, Giordano formally presented her legislative request to the County Council for backing.

“We would like to reform the Wicomico County liquor dispensary to allow the ability to purchase from private distributors rather than being mandated to the county dispensary,” Giordano wrote in a memo to council members.

County Council members, however, said they wanted to see the actual bill that would be introduced to the General Assembly before they would support the plan.

They asked to see a draft bill at their next regular meeting, scheduled Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Giordano’s goal is to win state lawmakers’ approval to sever the dispensary system from state Comptroller’s Office oversight. After achieving so-called “enabling legislation,” Wicomico leaders could then debate the details of a restructured alcohol-sales model.   

In recent years, counties across Maryland have been abandoning the dispensary model, which dates back to the end of Prohibition.

Today, Wicomico and Montgomery are the only counties in the state to still have liquor dispensary systems.

After a protracted battle, Worcester scrapped its dispensaries six years ago; Somerset adopted the hybrid mode two years ago. Somerset, in fact, issued its first liquor license to a private store in Princess Anne just last year.

During her 2022 election campaign, Giordano said, she heard complaints from the owners of stores and restaurants about the liquor dispensary system. Local stores cannot get licenses to sell hard liquor, and restaurants and bars must purchase alcohol through the county.

“They very much feel that the county’s monopoly on liquor is hurting their business,” she said.

Giordano wants to allow restaurants and bars to buy alcohol from any distributor they want and to allow local stores to get licenses to sell hard liquor alongside beer and wine.

Until it sees the proposed legislation, the council also delayed signing onto a letter Giordano wanted to send to Delegate C.T. Wilson of Charles County, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee.

Committee approval is the first hurdle in the alcohol measure becoming law.

“We believe that keeping the current county dispensary, creating new privately held licenses, and allowing local businesses and customers to choose where to purchase their alcohol is the appropriate model for our county,” Giordano wrote in her draft letter to Wilson.

Even while pressure has been building locally to allow the private sector to assume what has been a governmental role, Giordano’s three predecessors were all reluctant to challenge the dispensary system.

The county’s three stores and warehouse facility employ dozens of people, with liquor profits contributing – depending on each year’s performance – between $500,000 and $900,000 annually to the county’s coffers.

When calculating for inflation, however, the dispensaries contribute less to the county than they did even decades ago.

Giordano’s plan would protect the dispensaries by keeping them open.

“Opening this up is going to be a great opportunity for our small business owners,” she said. “Overall, this will help Wicomico County.”

Mike Vizard, the owner of Cheers just south of Salisbury University, sells only beer and wine. He testified Tuesday in favor of Giordano’s proposal.

“I’m all about a fair fight,” he said at a recent meeting on the subject of the dispensary. “I don’t mind if the dispensary is still there, as long as I have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”

Wicomico state Delegate Carl Anderton, a member of the House Economic Matters Committee, has agreed to be the county’s point man on the legislation, but is awaiting further instruction from the county.

State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza said in a recent interview that she supports the legislation and sees no need for a public referendum to prove public support.

But, she said, convincing state lawmakers is no easy task.

“I have cautioned everyone because I have served on the committee that has jurisdiction over alcohol bills. There are no simple alcohol bills – bar none,” Carozza said. “So when someone says they have a simple bill to either privatize a dispensary system, they have to know those bills are a very heavy lift.”

In a meeting with local lawmakers shortly after her election, Giordano bucked her predecessors when it came to fears over the county losing alcohol revenues.

“I’m going to be very honest,” she said. “As County Executive, if I can’t generate $750,000 to $800,000 to make up for that, I probably shouldn’t be in this seat.”

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