OCEAN CITY – Though some seem to want a larger piece of the slots pie than others, Ocean City may need to take steps to ensure they get a slice at all.
Mayor Rick Meehan addressed a recent letter written by the County Commissioners of Worcester County to Annapolis, and City Solicitor Guy Ayres pointed out a few “text problems” with the current legislation that does not necessarily protect Ocean City from the implementation of slots as much as what many people originally thought.
Video Lottery Terminals, or slot machines, were overwhelmingly passed in a November referendum after many in Ocean City voiced their disdain for the idea, but local government officials were assured by delegates and legislators in Annapolis that certain “mechanisms were put in place to protect the town of Ocean City”, according to Meehan.
Parallel to that Constitutional Amendment, which would allow slots at certain areas throughout the state, including one location in Worcester County “one mile from the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 589,” according to legislation, was Senate Bill 962, which outlined a number of items that should be implemented along with the approval of slots in each given area.
Some of those stipulations stated that no hotels be built on the sites designated for slots, and other aspects protecting the business community were implemented including only being allowed to offer limited food and drink at comparable prices to those of nearby businesses.
In addition, Senate Bill 962 states that Ocean City would receive 20 percent of the local impact grant, Berlin would receive 10 percent and Worcester County would receive the remaining 70 percent.
In a letter dated Dec. 22, 2008, County Commission President Louise Gulyas asked for changes to be made in the current slots legislation including a change that would levy all the money allotted in the local impact grant to Worcester County and removing the required partnership of the Mayor of Ocean City and the County Commissioners to appoint members to the local development council.
Meehan, obviously, was displeased with such a letter.
“I feel very strongly that when people voted for that Constitutional Amendment, they also voted for the accompanying legislation that they felt reflected what that amendment was going to do. Ocean City does not begrudge any other area in this county from receiving revenue, but it’s specifically spelled out what should go to Ocean City and Berlin and I was told after the bill passed by the delegates that they did that so we wouldn’t have to go to the county, just like we do with asking for grants and tax differential and ask for money,” he said.
The town of Berlin wrote a letter requesting to keep the allotted 10 percent and Ocean Pines also penned a letter requesting a slice of the proverbial pie provided by the local impact grant, and Meehan urged the City Council to authorize him to pen a similar letter to the governor and legislators.
“The County Commissioners’ letter clearly states, ‘we understand that the state is considering other changes to the law and we ask that our concerns be addressed also,’” Meehan said. “ I think that’s opening Pandora’s box, and a great mistake not to be very forthright in our opposition to any changes to this legislation, and I would request council authorizing a letter that states such.”
County Attorney and former County Commissioner Sonny Bloxom said recently that despite what the law states, the distribution of funds created by slots revenue should be distributed solely by the commissioners, and though Gulyas was the one that penned the letter to Annapolis asking for changes in the legislation, she did concede at a December meeting that Ocean City would be impacted the most by a slots parlor on the Route 50 corridor.
“The largest impact would be on Ocean City, and that just may kill us,” she said.
Another interesting twist in this ongoing debate is the verbiage placed in the legislation itself according to Ocean City Solicitor Guy Ayres.
“If you take a compass and do a one mile radius circle of the intersection of Routes 589 and 50, there are numerous properties that come into play besides Ocean Downs racetrack as potential sites for a slots parlor,” Ayres said. “I’m aware of four sites in addition to Ocean Downs that could qualify as a site, and I can tell you there is a lot of politicking going on for other sites other than Ocean Downs, and it might not be Ocean Downs.”
Ayres stated that Ocean Downs and any other potential sites all have sewer, zoning and infrastructure issues to address and added that from a road infrastructure standpoint, a location on Route 50 rather than the assumed Ocean Downs site on Route 589 might be an easier sell.
“If you think about it, the state of Maryland will have to do a whole lot less road-work, like an access road and a traffic light along Route 50, as opposed to Route 589 where they’d have to widen the road, and do a lot of infrastructure work,” Ayres said. “It may be more desirable in tough economic times to go the easier route. There’s a lot of factors that are going to come into play.”
Ayres said that the reason why the location becomes an issue for the slots parlor that will inevitably come to the area is the language spelled out in the legislation and how that effects and perhaps protects Ocean City from the economic impact.
“The problem is that they limited it to if the site was Ocean Downs, so that percentage of distribution only comes into play if Ocean Downs is the site,” said Ayres. “If any other of the potential sites on the Route 50 corridor becomes the location for slots, all money goes to the county. If it isn’t at Ocean Downs, and this bill is not amended, then our percentage of the take on this and the mayor’s appointment authority is an issue.”
The City Council voted unanimously to have Meehan pen a letter to Annapolis asking for legislation concerning the local impact grant of 20 percent to Ocean City and 10 percent to Berlin remain the same, and to ask for the verbiage to be changed in the legislation itself to protect the town, as per Ayres’ recommendation.
Although it could be argued that few people in the public sector knew about the exact numbers cited in the Senate bill compensating Ocean City and Berlin for the economic impact, Councilwoman Mary Knight said that the public knew what they were voting for when they voted to approve slots.
“When I asked why people voted for slots, they voted for the additional revenue,” said Knight, “and that’s evident in why slots passed in Ocean City by 58% to 42%. This is the right thing to do and I think all our constituents have spoken and it’s a travesty to see the letter that the county has written.”