Officials Hold Off Slots Prep While Details Ironed Out

BERLIN – Slot machine gambling is widely expected to impact traffic and crime rates, but formal planning to handle those changes has yet to get underway.

While local police and community leaders acknowledge that negative impacts will result from slot machine gambling in the north end of the county, they have little information to plan with thus far.

The county has been aware of potential impacts, but no official discussion has taken place, with elected officials more concerned with slots revenue than slots impacts since the referendum on slot machine gambling passed in November.

 “We’ve been looking at that for quite some time,” said County Commissioner Linda Busick. “I think we’ll be able to handle it just fine.”

The town of Berlin should take a leadership position in considering public safety, crime rates and human impacts of slot machine gambling, said Berlin Mayor Gee Williams. He added that the town could act as a clearinghouse on slot machine impacts in the area.

Planning needs to be a joint venture between the government and the community, he said, and to that end elected officials and staff need to reach out to the community.  “We’re going to have to be very proactive,” Williams said.

Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said there are anticipated impacts with slots, but many uncertainties remain.

“We definitely know we’re going to end up with more of the citizenry having more money issues,” said Downing. “We really haven’t sat down and talked about it.”

While Ocean Pines is a few miles from Ocean Downs or other proposed slots sites on Route 50, the Ocean Pines Police Department (OPPD) often responds to calls outside the community limits to assist the sheriff and state police.

According to OPPD Chief Dave Massey, his department has seen a steady increase in calls for assistance from outside Ocean Pines’ borders, from 164 in 2001 to 369 in 2008. He expects that increase to continue, particularly with slots in the neighborhood.

Slot machine gambling will definitely impact the OPPD, he said, which is to be expected when more people come to the area, more traffic is generated, and more activity takes place.

“Just how much [impact] we really don’t know,” said Massey. “I think you’re looking at a very significant increase.”

Massey expects to see more need for OPPD services inside the community as well as outside.

More traffic, near the slots facility and in surrounding communities, will be a challenge for police and citizens as well, officials say.

In Berlin, slots traffic could certainly impact local schools, since the town is home to five of them. In the summer, Berlin sees about 5,000 car trips a day. When schools are in session, that number swells to 10,000.

“The most immediate thing is the impact of traffic and the effect on parking,” Williams said.

In addition to the numbers of vehicles on the road, new traffic patterns could be a concern.

Traffic safety concerns Bob Hulburd, president of County Residents Action for Safer Highways (CRASH), a Route 113 dualization lobbying group.

“That area needs to be surveyed for impacts,” he said. 

State planning for improvements to Route 589 are moving forward with four designs for a redesigned intersection with Route 50 in hand. Actual changes to the road could be undertaken by Ocean Downs owner Bill Rickman, but only in the vicinity of the slots facility, but that’s assuming a lot that’s uncertain at this point.

“I think the county should be proactive as soon as possible about trying to implement a plan so they can have a say and rights to address the development and make sure the developer complies,” said Hulburd.

Access points onto Route 589 should be limited like they are on some sections of Route 113, he said, and that work needs to begin soon.

“You’ve got to have the codes and laws and language in effect so they can address those issues as they start to come up,” Hulburd said. “You don’t want to be too late.”

Higher crime related to slots, such as theft, domestic violence and prostitution, will only increase police calls, according to studies conducted on the subject.

“We’re at the point where we need to go ahead and add officers,” said Downing, a result of the town’s growth and increasing visitors.

Busick, a retired Baltimore County police officer, said she does not think local police need either more personnel or more training. Local law enforcement will simply have to handle more calls. Crime rates do go up in the vicinity of gambling facilities, she acknowledged.

With the location of slots yet to be determined, the task is not very clear cut.

“It’s too early to plan right now,” said Massey. “As things develop we’ll keep our eye very closely on it.”

Downing said that planning will start in earnest sooner rather than later.