(April 17, 2015) When the Liquor Control Board’s budget request session ended and Commissioner President M. Jim Bunting called, as he had every time in the previous six hours, for questions from the board, he and everyone else present looked squarely at Commissioner Joe Mitrecic.
Who said nothing.
Mitrecic shook his head and indicated he had nothing more to say on the matter.
Mitrecic and DLC Director Bobby Cowger, himself a former commissioner, had already clashed several times on this subject.
“Well, I’d like to hear what Bobby has to say,” Vice President Merrill Lockfaw said, breaking the silence at Tuesday’s budget hearing in Snow Hill.
Cowger showed no such reticence.
“There are several things I’d like to enlighten you on, and there are several things at play here, not just the bottom line. We have a huge, huge impact on the county and we do it without spending one cent of taxpayer money,” he said.
Cowger has said similar things in the past and Mitrecic has not believed it for one second.
Cowger continued explaining the whys and wherefores of the money flowing through his department, while Mitrecic remained impassive.
The Department of Liquor Control is making ends meet this budget cycle by using reserve funds — a move the county itself is considering — but without the claims of independence.
“You’re going to operate at a loss this year,” Mitrecic said, finally, “How is that not taxpayer money?”
It’s a nuanced argument owing to the transition to and absorption of the previous Liquor Control Board’s assets, including the reserve fund. County Administrator Harold Higgins stepped in to provide context to the argument, where it turned out that neither Cowger nor Mitrecic is 100 percent correct.
“It would have to be a total dissolution,” Higgins said of the previous department, implying that there wasn’t a complete dissolution of the preceding LCB and determining Cowger was likely the victor in this skirmish.
Cowger’s numbers from the previous Liquor Control Board, which had a monopoly on wholesaling spirits to county bars and restaurants until the middle of last year, estimate a $10 million market for liquor in Worcester County. Cowger said with alternate lines of distribution now opened, his department still retains a $6.5 million share of that market.
The trick, it seems, is in scaling the old department to its new shape.
Mitrecic has held that government doesn’t belong in the business at all and the department is an unwanted middleman in a crowded marketplace.
There are those who agree with Mitrecic in Ocean City, but Cowger said he still counts his critics as customers.
“Every one of the 208 licensees still does business with us, but maybe not the same scale,” Cowger said using the example of Seacrets, which used to do $1.6 million in business with the Liquor Control Board, but now is a customer only to the tune of “several hundred thousand dollars.”
There also are two private wholesale liquor distributors doing business in Worcester County, but each represents specific brands. The county’s department sells all the brands.
“I thoroughly understand your position,” Cowger said to Mitrecic, “and when this department cannot make a nickel, I’ll be the first up here to say it should go. I won’t have to say it in fiscal 2016,” Cowger said.
“I’m a patient man,” Mitrecic countered.