Council asks dispensary to stop selling beer, wine

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Wicomico County Council members are hoping to end wine sales at county liquor dispensaries as a way to help out small businesses that hold beer and wine licenses.

“The idea here is to try to eliminate as much government competition with the private sector,” Council Vice President John Cannon said during a recent work session. “It’s just one small step toward that.”

Business owners are trying to survive during the Covid-19 pandemic, and eliminating some of their competition might help, he said.

The county dispensary in north Salisbury features an extensive wine selection.

Councilman Josh Hastings said he agreed with Cannon.

“I don’t think we need further competition and this is generally an area where I’ve felt we should get out of the way and let businesses do this,” he said.

The dispensaries agreed in 2008 to stop selling beer. Now the council would like wine sales to end in January, Council President Larry Dodd said in a letter to Donald Ewalt, Chairman of the county’s Liquor Control Board.

The request also would include all malt and wine-based products.

Dodd asked for a meeting between the County Council and the Liquor Control Board to discuss the matter.

In an interview on Monday, Ewalt said he had not yet seen the letter, which was sent Oct. 29 to the board’s office.

He said he was aware the council wanted to arrange a meeting.

Doing so will be difficult, Ewalt said, because the council and the control board both hold Tuesday meetings, he said.

Wine sales are an important part of the dispensaries business, Ewalt said. Profits from the stores are turned over each year to the county, including $899,000 this fiscal year.

In his letter, Dodd said several local businesses were contacted to get input on whether the liquor dispensaries should sell beer and wine.

“In response to this inquiry, the County Council received a letter dated October 14, 2020 from William R. Chambers, President/CEO of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce indicating the sale of beer and wine under the dispensing authority of the Liquor Control Board is another intrusion into the free market system,” he said in the letter.

Dodd also quoted Comptroller Peter Franchot from a 2016 news story: “The Lower Shore’s economy is built on the backs of small business. Whenever possible, government needs to get out of the way to help businesses succeed and give consumers more choices and better prices.”

The dispensaries once sold only hard liquor. After legislation passed in 2000, however, they were permitted to sell wine and beer. In 2008, the control board agreed to end beer sales.

The Wicomico County dispensary in north Salisbury.

Over the years, the County Council has wrestled with the question of maintaining the liquor dispensaries versus turning sales over to private stores. The latter would mean a loss of revenue to the county.

A review committee appointed by the County Council in 2008 found that the county would not be able to replace most of the lost revenue from the dispensaries, but some of it could be replaced by a license fee restructuring.

The committee said “the dispensary system is an autonomous monopoly that is not in the best interest of the public, and the 2000 legislation permitting the Dispensary to sell beer and wine at retail should be repealed,” Dodd said in the letter.

However, the council at the time decided against a holding referendum, saying the issue needed more discussion.

Wicomico is one of only three counties in Maryland that still have county-run dispensaries that were established at the end of Prohibition. Somerset and Montgomery counties still operate dispensaries. Worcester County phased out its county stores in the past few years.

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