Local Fraternal Clubs Want Equal Playing Field On Slots

BERLIN – Local fraternal organizations still want slots in their lodges and the County Commissioners support them.

The commissioners voted last week to oppose slot machines at Ocean Downs racetrack, but that is a separate issue from slot machines at service clubs and fraternal organizations, Commissioner Bobby Cowger said.

“This has nothing to do with the slots bill,” he said.

Cowger was the swing vote last Tuesday in the commissioners’ 5-2 decision to write to state legislators opposing slot machines in the county. He is also the commissioner who brought up slot machines at fraternal organizations in October.

Legislation to add slot machines to Worcester County fraternal organizations would be separate practically and ideologically from the statewide slot machine gambling bills now being considered by the special session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Slot machines have been permitted in Maryland’s fraternal organizations and service clubs for the last 20 years, but not in Worcester County.

“Worcester County is the only county in the state now that does not have slots in the fraternal organizations,” Cowger said.

Revenue from the machines funds fraternal groups’ charity work. Under law, half of the proceeds must go to charity.

According to Cowger, Elks’ lodges in Somerset and Wicomico counties earn $100,000 each annually for charity through slot machines. A club in Cambridge with slot machines gave away $150,000 last year, he said.

In contrast, the Pocomoke City Elks Club, of which Cowger is a member, earns about $10,000, mostly through bingo.

“The service organizations in Ocean City and Worcester County are at a disadvantage compared to every other service club on the Eastern Shore,” said Jim Flaig, treasurer of the Ocean City Elks Lodge. “When you don’t have slot machines, you can’t have the contributions the others do.”

Worcester County service clubs raise funds through golf tournaments, bull roasts, dinners and donations to support Little League, college scholarships, and homeless shelters.

Many of the recreation programs at Ocean City’s Northside Park would not exist without donations from service clubs, according to Flaig.

“We’re restricted on what we can do by the amount of money we bring in,” Flaig said.

The Ocean City Elks already gives away $45,000 to $50,000 a year, including college scholarships.

Cowger said that Worcester County lodge membership is dwindling as people join chapters in adjacent counties.

“They’re losing members all the time and they need to find revenue,” he said. “A lot of people in Pocomoke are leaving the organizations and going to Somerset because they can play slots.”

Under Maryland law, each chapter of a fraternal organization in counties where the groups are allowed slots is restricted to five machines.

State legislators have told Cowger that they see no problem passing a bill to add Worcester County to the existing law.

“When the regular session opens in January, we’re going to be sending a letter to Annapolis for a bill to be introduced,” Cowger said.

Originally, any slots for lodges bill proposed by Worcester County’s elected officials would exclude Ocean City chapters of fraternal organizations and service clubs, commissioners said when the idea came up during an October meeting.

After the idea was aired in mid-October, Cowger said both the Ocean City American Legion Post and the Ocean City Elks Club wrote to the commissioners asking to be included in the bill.

“The Ocean City organizations have always wanted them. The people that don’t want them is the City Council,” said Flaig.

The 1987 bill permitting slots at fraternal orders elsewhere in the state left Worcester County out because Ocean City was against it.

Slots tourism could then happen on a very small scale, Cowger admitted, but would be limited by the need for membership in the organizations.

“Our clubs are members-only clubs. This is not somebody coming in from off the street,” Flaig said. “You have to be a member or be with a member.”

Elks members must be sponsored, interviewed, and voted on in a process that can take four to five months

“It’s not like walking in and saying, ‘I want to be a member,’” Flaig said.

Cowger said the transition is an obvious one and it has support.

“I’ve never heard anybody out here really opposed to slots at fraternal organizations, even those opposed to slots at Ocean Downs,” said Cowger.

To the contrary, the president of at least one service club, who did not want himself or the club identified this week, said that his organization does not have any interest in slot machines at their facility.

“We’re not in the slots business,” he said.