SNOW HILL – Fraternal organizations overwhelmingly want slot machines in their halls, the Worcester County Commissioners heard during a public hearing this week.
Worcester County is the only county on the Eastern Shore that does not permit non-profits like fraternal organizations to house a few slot machines. Half the revenue from those machines, limited to five per lodge, must be given to charity.
“There’s being considered a bill that would include Worcester County in that existing law,” county attorney Ed Hammond said. “The commissioners have been asked to comment on it.”
Worcester County opted out of that legislation when it was introduced decades ago. The reasoning behind the exemption is no longer valid, Peter O’Connor, past exalted ruled of the Ocean City Elks Lodge, felt.
“They didn’t have gambling in Worcester County. They didn’t want gambling in Worcester County,” said O’Connor.
The entire state, including Worcester County, has gambling, O’Connor pointed out, like the state lottery. “Gambling is pretty prevalent in Worcester County today,” he said.
Kelvin Lynch, exalted ruler of the Selbyville Elks Lodge, like 80 percent of the public hearing speakers Tuesday, strongly supported the limited gambling. The Selbyville Elks lodge is physically located in Worcester County, making that chapter eligible for slots.
Last year, the Selbyville Elks gave away $30,000 in scholarship money.
“We need more income coming in to help us fulfill that,” Lynch said. “We love doing our charity work. Our hands are tied. We recently lost many members to other lodges because of the smoking ban.”
The other Eastern Shore fraternal organizations house 245 slot machines and gave away $2.5 to $3 million last year, said Sarge Garlitz, representing the Sinepuxent Post of the American Legion.
“All the posts in Worcester County would like to have the same thing,” he said. “We could do more for the county.”
If the county is worried about the effects of the slot machines, Garlitz proposed that they be reviewed in 20 years.
“In a way, slots gambling is like recycling because half the money we take in will be recycled back into the community,” Ron Taylor, recycling director for Worcester County who is also a member of the Pocomoke Elks lodge, said. “We’ve been begging for them from you and it’s time to do something about it.”
Wicomico American Legion Post Commander Ray Porter said slots is critical.
“We’ve had slot machines for 20 years and we’ve given away over $2 million to charity. One of the charities we donated to was your developmental center,” Porter said. “We couldn’t function the way we function without slot machines.”
Ocean City Elks Lodge Jim Flaig said the potential for improving the community with slots revenue is substantial.
“We do an awful lot for the county, but there’s an awful lot we don’t do for the county,” said Flaig.
Last year the organizations gave away $27,500, while the Easton, Salisbury and Kent Island Elks gave away over $200,000 each.
“Is that the kind of money we can afford to turn our back on?” asked Thomas Simmons, Senior Vice Commander of VFW Post 8296 in Ocean City.
Concerns that the slot machines would attract tourists or take away from tourism revenues are unfounded, speakers said. Only members and their guests can enter the lodges and have access to slot machine gambling and guest access is limited.
“I can’t take someone in and say, ‘here’s the slot machines,’” said Simmons.
A handful of speakers were opposed to the change.
“I’m against gambling,” said Norman Cathell, a member of an unidentified service organization in Berlin.
Slot machines in meeting halls are a step on the ladder to casino gambling, he said.
Ed Lee, president of the Worcester County NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), asked the commissioners to take a moral stance and not endorse the move.
The commissioners made no decision at the meeting, but promised to consider the matter carefully.
“In view of all of the testimony, I would need to digest some of the things you’ve said and take a closer look at the legislation to ensure we are doing what we intend to do,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “Just to make sure that the details don’t overcome the good all the organizations will do.”
“I don’t want to sign my name onto something that’s not going to do exactly what we want it to do,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “We’ll digest it.”
“I adamantly oppose slot machines. I still want to see the bill,” Commissioner Louise Gulyas said.
“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing with the right tool,” said Commission president Jim Purnell. “A lot of the time we get blindsided by what’s coming out of Annapolis.”
“Your message was loud and clear. It’s an awful lot to think about,” Commissioner Bud Church said.