County Opts Not To Fight Lower Slots Percentage

SNOW HILL – Local elected officials will not oppose a change in slots legislation assigning a percent of future slots revenues to a local housing development, but will testify before the Maryland General Assembly seeking clarification of the role of a development council potentially with the power to approve or disapprove slots impact spending.

The 15-member local development council, under the current bill, looks at slot machine gambling impacts, but it is not clear what authority that body would have over impact spending.

Future slot machine revenue, 5.5 percent, will be set aside for local jurisdictions to mitigate slots impacts, such as traffic, crime, or gambling addiction. The original bill distributed 70 percent of that money to Worcester County, 20 percent to Ocean City and 10 percent to Berlin.

A bill currently introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates would alter that, with 10 percent going to Ocean Pines, a homeowners association, and 60 percent to Worcester County. The Berlin and Ocean City percentages remain the same.

The County Commissioners had been under the impression that the local development board would have to sign off on use of those funds by each jurisdiction, but the language is not so direct.

“The legislation as written is poorly drafted. It’s not very clear,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

In the original bill, the spending was to have been approved by the commissioners in the end, he said.

“There has to be an impact,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “You have to make a case.”

Under the new legislation, that might not be the intent.

“It’s for impact. The language is written so broadly you can make anything an impact,” Bloxom said. “You can do just about anything you want to do with the money.”

Berlin’s idea of using the money for advertising, to bring slots customers to the small town, could be allowed under the new legislation.

“There’s really no hammer that can come back on you,” said Bloxom. “You’re not answering to anyone.”

Recent discussions of funneling the local share of the slots revenue through the county first was to make sure the funds were best used to benefit the towns and county, officials say.

Now it looks like the legislation allows jurisdictions to do whatever they want with the money, said Commission President Louise Gulyas.

The intent originally was that the development committee would approve the spending, but now the argument can be made the other way, Bloxom said. The legislation under consideration appears to require only the county to go through that process to spend its “diminishing share”.

The legislative session ends on April 13, and the commissioners have little time to consider their response to the bill.

“We had a list of things we should be including in the bill. Somebody is going to say, ‘do we support this or don’t we support this?’” Shockley said.

The law needs to make it clear that jurisdictions must have their impact spending approved through the local development council, some commissioners felt. Others disagreed.

“I think it’s a moot point right now. The reason I feel that way is it’s a done deal,” said Gulyas.

County Commissioner Judy Boggs pointed out that there is no cross-filed bill in the Maryland Senate.

“I think we should wait,” said Gulyas.

Boggs argued it’s important to articulate the county’s position.

“It’s important we make some sort of testimony there. We don’t want everyone to think we’re just willing to let it go however,” Boggs said.

Shockley pushed for supporting the local development council as impact funding gatekeeper. “It has to be a justifiable impact,” he said.

“You’re going to sit up here and tell Ocean City or Berlin they can use ‘x’ amount of dollars on advertising?” Gulyas asked.

The commissioners have to sign off on all of it in the end anyway, Shockley answered.

“This is probably the best it’s going to get,” he said.

The local legislative delegation did not inform the commissioners of the changes included in the new legislation, Gulyas pointed out.

“You expect they’re going to tell us about the development board? They’re not going to tell us anything,” Gulyas said.

 The commissioners voted 5 to 1 to ask Bloxom to draft language clarifying the authority and role of the 15-member local development council.

Gulyas dissented, saying, “I just don’t see where you’re going with this. It’s too many strings. You’re either giving them 20 percent or not giving them 20 percent.”