SNOW HILL – The County Commissioners were persuaded this week to take a stand on slots, voting to send a letter to Annapolis opposing them in the county.
After the town of Ocean City hand-delivered a letter to Worcester County offices Tuesday morning, the commissioners agreed to hold a discussion that afternoon on slot machine gambling as described in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill currently before the special session of the General Assembly.
Originally, it appeared that the commissioners were going to sit back and take no position on slots, with four of the seven elected officials unwilling to do more than gather more information and wait for a referendum to materialize.
The commissioners have made no public and official attempt to ascertain the wishes of Worcester County’s citizens, preferring to wait for the state to take care of conducting a vote.
“I don’t take my decision-making responsibility lightly and before I make decisions I like to have all the information,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs, who represents Ocean Pines. “We represent the public and we ought to represent how the public feels … I’m not in favor of taking any position at this time.”
Two years ago, when a slot machine bill passed the House, the commissioners decided they needed to ask for a referendum to determine how the citizens felt, Commissioner Virgil Shockley said. “That is that stance I will take today,” Shockley said.
Commissioner Linda Busick added, “I would prefer to have a referendum and let our Worcester County residents vote their will. There are many unanswered questions and I will refrain from making a decision.”
Three commissioners came out of the gate vehemently against slot machines at Ocean Downs.
“Worcester County had slot machines a number of years ago and the leaders at the time in their infinite wisdom outlawed slots in Worcester County,” said Commissioner Bud Church, whose district encompasses Ocean Downs. “I don’t need a whole lot of information about slot machines to convince me they’re not good for Ocean City … Casinos are built by losers. They’re not built by winners.”
The commissioners, he said, have an obligation to send a message to Annapolis that slots are not welcome in Worcester County. He said he would make a motion to send a letter to that effect when discussion concluded.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas said, “I am totally against gambling in our county. I have to say no to slots in Worcester County.”
Commission President Jim Purnell said, “I’m against slots in Worcester County for many reasons. That takes money away from our kids. That takes food off the table.”
Ocean City Council President Joe Mitrecic said it’s critical for the county to take a stand and let legislators know their position.
“These decisions are being made now,” Mitrecic told the commissioners Tuesday afternoon. “It’s going to be there [at Ocean Downs] if we don’t come out now and state our position.”
Although the discussion was not a public hearing, Purnell permitted a limited number of interested parties to speak.
“This decision you are being asked to make today is probably going to be the most important, the most far reaching, decision you’ll have to make as County Commissioners,” said Bill Ochse, founder of the Kite Loft in Ocean City. “Can you be proud and tell your grandchildren you did the right thing, you did not stand by and let the state make the decision?”
Boggs broke in at this point and said the commissioners shouldn’t let the meeting turn into a public hearing, which must be advertised with three weeks notice.
“You want all the facts but don’t want to hear the people talk,” Church said.
Comment was allowed to continue.
“Those people who can afford it the least are the ones who are impacted the most,” said Gabe Purnell, a member of the local NAACP chapter that recently passed a resolution against slots.
Pocomoke City is also against slots. “We want no part or portion of slots, casinos, or anything like that in Pocomoke City,” said Pocomoke City Mayor Michael McDermott to the commissioners. “There’s not a mayor in Worcester County who supports it. … It’s not a hope and it’s not a future. It’s bondage. It leads us to form this dependence on something that is tenuous at best.””
Ocean City hotelier Dr. Leonard Berger contended the resort would lose more in failing businesses than it would gain in the 5.5 percent of the slots revenue to be remitted locally.
“Let us be morally and economically above that kind of money,” Berger said.
Harrison Group’s G. Hale Harrison told the commissioners that while in Annapolis to testify against slot machines last week, some delegates said Worcester’s lack of an opinion on slots is an endorsement.
“This special session is moving quickly. If this commission wants to make its voice heard it needs to take a stance now,” Harrison said. “If you don’t protect us at this point in time, we’re incapable of protecting ourselves. Please take a stand. This is your last chance.”
Todd Ferrante, representing the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said he has been told by the chamber’s Annapolis lobbyist that decisions are being made now on the budget and taxes. When in Annapolis to testify last week, Ferrante said, he was asked where the commissioners stood on slots and had to say he did not know.
After the citizen comments, one of the fence sitters had a change of heart. County Commissioner Robert Cowger said that after listening to some of the county’s leaders he was willing to compromise and agree to the letter proposed by Church.
After a brief discussion of conditioning their opposition on a referendum, that approach was abandoned as impractical under the governor’s slot machine bill.
The vote was 5-2 in favor of sending the letter expressing their opposition to slots in Worcester County, with Boggs and Shockley voting against the missive.