Proposed Slots Bill Changes Worry Berlin Officials

BERLIN – Changes sought in Maryland’s slot machine legislation by the Worcester County Commissioners have both surprised and concerned Berlin’s elected officials, who approved a letter to state legislators this week in an attempt to preserve the town’s right under the slots law to 10 percent of slots revenue in the county.

Last week, the commissioners voted to request several changes to the slot machine gambling law passed this year, including elimination of the codified revenue split, with all slots revenue going directly to the county. Under the law, the county would receive 70 percent of the slots revenue, Ocean City would get 20 percent and Berlin would receive 10 percent

As discussed by the commissioners last week, the slot machine funds would be disbursed to northern Worcester County towns Ocean City and Berlin as impacts from slots at Ocean Downs are documented, under the county’s requested approach. The county would like to be the recipient of the funds and then pass them on through grants to the municipalities, which would have to prove to the commissioners the impacts slots had them specifically.

Berlin elected officials learned of the county’s attempt to get the law changed from local newspaper reports, not from the commissioners.

“I think we all feel a bit ambushed,” Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it has a point.”

The mayor said he had had several calls from townspeople asking how he would respond to the commissioners’ request to eliminate the revenue sharing provision of the law.

“I am not aware of any effort on behalf of the commissioners to inform the Town of Berlin of their concerns with the legislation, or to seek Berlin’s input regarding any modifications to provisions that may impact our municipality,” wrote Williams in the letter, which was addressed to Delegates Jim Mathias, Norman Conway and Page Elmore, Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, the County Commissioners and Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan.

The Berlin Mayor and Council unanimously approved the letter, without discussion, on Monday night.

“I think his letter was appropriate,” said newly seated Councilman Troy Purnell later, adding that he did not understand why Worcester County would seek such a change.

Williams was careful to say that he does not believe the county had any negative intent in asking for the change, when contacted after the meeting.

Councilwoman Lisa Hall, on the other hand, speculated that the County Commissioners want to use the slots revenue to recoup budget costs.

According to the letter, the town sees the 10 percent revenue share as a necessity, so that Berlin can handle increased traffic, parking demands, pedestrian facilities and other issues.

“I don’t think we’re getting an unfair share,” Williams said.

The funding is also, in Williams’ understanding, meant for economic development to take advantage of increased visitors to town and other economic opportunities, as well as the competition for tourist dollars from the slot machine facility slated for Ocean Downs.

The town, which has transformed itself into a tourist destination in the last 25 years, needs to be able to market itself to new tourists attracted by gambling opportunities.

“A guaranteed revenue stream, even a relatively modest one, will allow our community to plan, implement and adjust to both the economic opportunities and unanticipated circumstances of these uncertain economic times,” the letter reads.

Berlin would use the slots funding in conjunction with the Maryland Main Street program to upgrade town infrastructure and offerings for the expected influx of new visitors.

The town’s eastern entrance is just 1.5 miles from presumptive slots site Ocean Downs.

Funneling all local slots revenues to Worcester County would also increase bureaucracy and cause delays, according to Williams’ letter, and hamper Berlin’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities.

“Berlin and Ocean City are certainly capable of defining and responding to the respective needs of our communities without entering an annual budgetary bidding process with the commissioners,” Williams wrote.

Since the county has never had a slots facility, no one knows what problems will crop up, and the towns will need flexibility to respond, he said.

The town of Berlin cannot create a long-term strategy to respond to slot machine impacts, positive and negative, if it has to go to the county, hat in hand, when it needs to take action.

Instead of going to the legislature to change the slots law, Williams felt, the commissioners should be sitting down with Ocean City and Berlin to work out any county concerns.

Berlin’s letter to legislators requested that the revenue sharing split be retained as is, and asked to be included in any formal discussion related to changing the slots revenue disbursement.

“We simply ask that if there is any formal discussion about changing the current provisions of the slots legislation as it relates to Worcester County, the Town of Berlin would most appreciate being included in the dialogue,” the letter read.

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