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Liquor Board failing to do basic parts of its job, says audit

Liquor Board failing to do basic parts of its job, says audit
From the Liquor Board's video (Liquor Board)

Three years after a scathing audit which led to a shake-up of the state agency, Baltimore City's Board of Liquor License Inspectors still lacks comprehensive written policies and procedures, an audit has found.

Among the 18 findings in the 76-page report: The liquor board failed to collect $76,000 in license fees from the Horseshoe Casino. Another eight of 41 licensees the auditors checked were under-assessed by thousands more dollars. And the money these licensees did pay did not necessarily get to city coffers. Between fiscal 2013 and 2015, more than $1 million was deposited into a liquor board "holding account rather than being recorded in the appropriate City revenue account," according to the audit, which was made public today.

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The board, which is technically a state agency but whose employees are on the city payroll, is supposed to inspect all bars, liquor stores, and restaurants that serve alcohol to make sure they comply with applicable rules and laws. It has also been a patronage mill for powerful state senators. Reform efforts have roiled the agency for many years, with little obvious impact on day-to-day operations.

In addition, auditors found that the liquor board:

  • Did not update criminal background checks of licensees
  • Does not have "an effective system to track inspections" and their outcomes.
  • Is still not performing its full quota of inspections.
  • Did not track cash receipts.
  • Did not follow-up complaints about liquor establishments.

Many complaints were about excessive noise. But the agency's two sound meters were locked up in the office, not available at night. Even if inspectors could get to them, the meters were not calibrated, and the they were never trained to use them.

The liquor board says it's probably not going to use them in the future, either.

In a written response appended to the audit, Board Chairman Albert Matricciani Jr., says that after reviewing the policies of the liquor board and those in surrounding jurisdictions, the agency will discontinue the use of sound meters as its primary means of investigating noise complaints, "but retain them as an 'investigtive tool.'"

This is partly because calibration of the meters is "costly and inefficient," and took two months. Even then they sometimes gave inaccurate readings, Matricciani wrote. So the inspectors will use their ears.

In his response, Matricciani says the audit only tells "a half-story, a story that ended in September of 2015."

The lengthy memo reads as a point-by-point rebuttal to the audit, agreeing with each finding but then explaining that everything has changed since the auditors completed their work last fall.

Saying the agency has made "significant strides in addressing all 18 findings," Matricciani writes that the liquor board now has a new edition of the rules and regulations for licensees, has a policy and procedure manual for employees, is managing employees and tracking inspections and has implemented internal controls over cash receipts.

Citing state law, Matricciani says in his response to the audit that the Criminal Justice Information Center (CJIS) is obligated to send the liquor board any updates to the criminal record of any license holder. It's not up to the liquor board to check.

But even so, he writes, the board will check.

The main problem, Matricciani writes, is precisely the shake-up attributed in part to the last audit.

He points out too that the liquor board did not have a full time executive secretary for several months after the 2013 audit came out, and that staff turnover among the liquor inspectors (more than 20 then; eight now) and other duties left little time to write a policy and procedure manual for the remaining inspectors.

With three different liquor boards empaneled in just two years, it was hard for the agency to get a handle on itself.

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The new board under Matricciani has a bit of breathing room, thanks to changes in the law requiring state audits. Although some other state agencies still face auditors every three years, the liquor board's next audit is four years from now.

Click here for more from Edward Ericson Jr. or email Edward at eericson@citypaper.com

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