Local Gambling Devices Down To Their Last Days

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (June 26, 2008)—As July 1 approaches so does the state-mandated deadline for operators of video bingo terminals to shut down the machines on their premises.

While the devices have been a source of controversy about potential social ills that gambling brings, some still say they brought a valuable source of revenue to the county’s charities and non-profits.

Del. John Wood (D-Dist. 29A) said, however, that the state legislation that outlawed them from St. Mary’s was fundamentally unfair, since the same kind of devices were still allowed to operate, in some cases as much as a year beyond July 1, in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties as well as Baltimore City.

“It’s not right but that’s correct,” Wood said of the bill’s provision, passed in the latest Annapolis legislative session. “It wasn’t right that St. Mary’s couldn’t keep them [like other jurisdictions]; what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The gaming devices, which resemble slot machines, were last year deemed legal to operate here in St. Mary’s by the State’s Attorney’s office but in March an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office suggested they might be illegal.

St. Mary’s Sheriff Timothy Cameron had the machines shut down after a local investigation in March but a May ruling by Circuit Court Judge Karen Abrams stated that since the machines had a set number of victories in them, and not a random number generator, they were games of chance but not slot machines and therefore legal to operate.

The lawsuit to allow the machines to be turned back on was brought by Bob Sorrells, owner of Fred’s Liquors in Charlotte Hall and several nonprofits that benefited from the machines’ operation at his store.

Local law enforcement saw problems with how the proceeds from the machines were being handled, however, and chaffed at the amount of profit being made by the store owners and machine vendors while a seemingly small percentage was given over to the nonprofits and charities.

Still, Wood said, the gaming machines were a vital fundraising tool for the charities and nonprofits, who often struggle for money.

“They were doing a lot of good for the charitable organizations and non-profits and the small operators,” Wood said.

Billy Hill, owner of St. Mary’s Landing restaurant in Charlotte Hall said that while the machines were turned off he lost at least $60,000 in rent revenue from their operations.

“It’s come up [revenue] to just about where it was,” Hill said now that the machines have been on for about two months. “The charities are making good money and I’ll be sad to see them [gambling devices] go.

“Once the revenue stops I’ll have to let five or seven people go.”

By eliminating the gambling machines here, Wood said, local charities and even parochial schools were in danger of serious funding cuts if the slots referendum is not successful this November.

He said the chances of getting laws passed to bring the machines back if the referendum fails were “very slim.”

“It’s going to have a tremendous affect,” Woods said of the success or failure of the slots measure. “There’s a lot riding on that bill passing like the state’s budget situation.

“Once the revenue [from local gambling devices] goes they’ll be struggling; if slots fails then non-profits and charities will also get cuts in state funding.”

The gaming devices allowed here were heavily opposed by Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-Dist. 29) and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Chesapeake Beach).

Miller was criticized by local store owners and gambling machine operators for wanting to eliminate competition for any incoming slot machines while pushing a bill that allowed political allies who had had the gaming machines for years to keep theirs a little while longer.

One was the owner of the Rod N’ Reel restaurant and mayor of Chesapeake Beach Gerald Donovan.

“If it’s OK to keep his it should be OK to keep ours,” Wood told The County Times.

Del. John Bohanan (D-Dist. 29B) said that it was proper to allow jurisdictions that had the machines “for years and years” to dispose of them more slowly.

“I think that’s fair to allow them a longer time,” Bohanan said. “There’s no smooth way of transitioning away from these things when people have been making lots of money from them.”

Wood said Abrams’ decision to allow the machines here to be reactivated had a divided response in the local Democratic party, but he believed she made the right decision.

“There were a lot of people who were pleased,” Wood said. “Some people thought it was a slap in the face to Mike Miller… but I don’t think so.”

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