Wicomico County leaders continue hammering out liquor licensing changes
WICOMICO COUNTY, Md. – For years, Wicomico County leaders have been trying to rework the county’s liquor licensing system. This legislative session, lawmakers began trying to push a bill through that would do exactly that. However, the process hasn’t come without setbacks.
Legislation Filed, Withdrawn
Monday afternoon, Senate Bill 245 was withdrawn in Annapolis. The bill would have opened up the pathway to make liquor licensing changes.
However, bill sponsor Senator Mary Beth Carozza explains it was filed as a placeholder; lawmakers wanted to ensure they didn’t miss the filing deadline, but also that Wicomico County was getting what it’s asking for, says the Senator.
“We went ahead and made the bill request. I think we thought that this could possibly be a vehicle to use if we were, in fact, able to reach that consensus,” said Sen. Carozza. “We have to lay the groundwork this session before we move forward. But, at least what we’re doing now, is ensuring that we’re all committed to working together, to move towards privatization.”
Changing the Rules
Here at home, County Executive Julie Giordano says there are specific changes she’d like to see made to liquor licensing in Wicomico County.
“We have a dispensary system. I kind of view it as a monopoly for the county. So, we’re looking to move past that,” said Giordano. “Our restaurants and our owners are kind of forced to buy from our dispensary only, and nobody else can really have the license.”
If the vision is accomplished, restaurant and bar owners could choose to buy liquor from the county dispensary, or a vendor of their choice.
“We need to have that local control, because if we put too many specifics in that bill, any time we want to make an amendment, we have to go back to Annapolis,” said Giordano.
Giordano says enabling legislation is a key part of the process. She explains that it would lay out important parameters, such as allowing the licensing board to determine how many licenses will be awarded.
“I think we, in Wicomico County, know what we want, and there’s a lot of concern about a liquor store on every corner, there’s an issue about who’s going to be able to open them. So, when we’re able to handle it at a local level, we definitely think that that’s better,” she said.
In future sessions, Giordano says lawmakers could revisit the number of liquor licenses permitted.
Restoring Lost Revenue
Wicomico and Montgomery Counties are the last in the state to operate on a dispensary system.
Giordano says she recently compared notes with Montgomery County Executive, Marc Elrich. One point of discussion: accounting for lost revenue from customers choosing to buy elsewhere than the county dispensary.
Giordano says Elrich shared with her that Montgomery County’s dispensary revenue usually falls between $26 and $28 million per year. In Wicomico County, the figures are much smaller; Giordano estimates that the county dispensary pulls in about $750,000 to $900,000 annually.
While Giordano says the lost dollars could be fewer than in other parts of the state, it’s still important to prepare for them.
“We’ll be able to make up that revenue, 100%. They’ll be able to employ more people, and our revenue will go up,” said Giordano. “I think it’ll dip down a little bit, and then it’ll go up.”
With Senate Bill 245 being withdrawn Monday afternoon, the path forward for changing County liquor laws is less clear. However, lawmakers have pledged to keep pushing forward.
“It may be that we have to work through that now, before we move forward with legislation,” said Sen. Carozza. “But, what I’m encouraged about is the discussions across the board are continuing.”
Giordano says she will also keep pressing on with making change. Adding, it’s time for Wicomico County to get in line with the rest of the state.
“This is not an anomaly, it’s not something crazy that I’m trying to invent to make progress happen. This is very much something that is in line with the other counties in the state,” said Giordano.