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Tempers flare as liquor board hikes retail prices

(Dec. 19, 2014) County commissioners past and present crossed swords over a proposed rate increase in retail pricing at the Worcester County Liquor Control Board stores.

“In our situation we need to increase revenue or cut expenses. We’ve made seven cuts in administration and the warehouse. We’ve made all the cuts. We need to generate more revenue,” Robert “Bobby” Cowger Jr. told the commissioners during their regular Tuesday meeting.

Effective immediately, all 1.75-liter products will increase in price by one dollar. All bottles of wine will increase in price by $.50. On Jan. 1, all products 50 ml in volume or greater will increase in price by $.50, and the “split case” charge for licensees will increase from $.50 per bottle to $.75 per bottle.

Cowger told the commissioners even these increases will allow the county’s stores to remain competitive, and reported wholesalers generally charge $1.39 to $1.49 in split case charges.

Commissioners’ Board President M. Jim Bunting said he knew that some commissioners felt the increases were merely a “Band-Aid” for a failing or obsolete department but felt the increases could help the stores find their footing after years of struggling.

“I don’t think the county should be in business,” Commissioner Ted Elder said, “but we can’t cut the legs out right away. I don’t see anything wrong with the recommendations.”

Commissioner Bud Church agreed, “if it gradually fades away so be it, but closing it up would be a mistake.”

New Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, representing Ocean City, called the Liquor Control Board “archaic,” and pointed to Cowger’s example of the Gold Coast Mall store not as a beacon of success, but as a symptom of the system’s failure.

Cowger said despite the proposed increases, sales at the Gold Coast store remain fairly constant, and said customers would be more than happy to travel to Delaware to buy liquor if the prices weren’t competitive.

Mitrecic scoffed at the assertion, saying during the summer months an influx of people enter Ocean City who don’t know they can travel to Delaware to purchase liquor at more competitive prices. Mitrecic said he lives in the area of the Gold Coast store and doesn’t know anyone who shops outside of Delaware for alcohol.

Cowger reminded Mitrecic he once sat in his chair and knew the decisions one would have to make for the county. County Attorney Sonny Bloxom raised a hand and said, “Bobby,” which had the intended effect of cooling flared tempers. Cowger was elected to the board twice, serving from 1995-98 and again from 2006-2010.

According to Cowger, the LCB employs more than 20 people and supports a payroll of $2 million as well as owning another $2 million in assets.

Cowger noted in a memo to the commissioners, “Without these changes, we project that the Liquor Control Enterprise Fund will finish the year at a loss.”

Mitrecic was the only “nay” vote to adopt the changes.

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