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Tims column

March 23, 1997

(Tim Rowland is on vacation, his new column will appear in two weeks.)

Last July 13, the Hagerstown Elks Club sent a delegation to the Veterans Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., to throw a birthday party, according to records filed in the Washington County Gaming Commission.

A nice gesture, certainly. But not a free one. The Elks carefully recorded the hours and mileage their people spent on this outing to the tune of $262.50 and wrote it off of the total sum that state law says the private club must give to charity. On August 10, the Elks made another $180 trip to the VA. On September 21, a $380 visit was written off.

But here, at least, we can assume the trip cheered up some deserving veterans.

The Owls Club, in the second half of 1996, threw more than $3,300 worth of private parties, mostly for its own members, and wrote the sum off its charitable obligation, gaming records show.

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Clubs are allowed to write off a "rental fee," when they allow a charitable group to use their meeting rooms. Records show the clubs play this write-off to the hilt.

In a one-month period in late summer, the Hancock American Legion said it gave away $1,400 worth of meeting room space (the same type of space many churches let people meet in for free).

And keep in mind, this space must be "rented" to groups that have filed with the government as non-profit agencies. Yet the Boonsboro American Legion wrote off $700 in a two-month period for seven meetings held by people planning their class reunions.

At $100 a pop, it wrote off meeting space for "charitable" organizations such as Bass Masters, political groups, labor unions and bridge clubs. When it came to giving up actual cash in the second half of 1996, the Boonsboro Club was far more miserly. To the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and Goodwill, the club wrote out paltry checks of $25 each - this from an organization that grossed $266,000 in tip jar gambling last year.

And here's the real clincher: Twice on the same day, Oct. 27, 1996, the club "rented out" meeting space to the Washington County Club Association and wrote off $100 for each meeting. The clubs rented out their own building to themselves and gave back to themselves money that by law should be going to the needy of this county.

Del. Bruce Poole, for reasons known only to him, cooked up this in-kind fiasco and successfully wrote it into the law. Poole said at the time the amendment would not be abused by the clubs and that it would cause no administrative tangles. Quite obviously, Poole was wrong on both counts.

In the end, not all these "charitable" contributions will be allowed. But they show how far the private club leaders are willing to reach for a buck.

Now the clubs are going to court, saying the want a part of the state law reconstructed so as to keep even more money for themselves. The suit names the Commissioners and the Gaming Commission, but in reality the clubs are suing county charities, because that's who they would be taking the money away from if they win. They're suing the Boys and Girls Club, Hospice, Childrens' Village, the Community Action Council, the Maryland Symphony and all the dozens of worthy groups that the Gaming Commission funds.

This despite the fact that for the year clubs are already legally entitled to keep 90 percent of the gambling revenues for themselves.

But that's not good enough for them. They want to wrench away a few more of the pennies on the dollar that are going to kids, the elderly and the sick. In a $55 million industry, they want another $200,000 for themselves.

When will the greed end?

It's important to point out that many, perhaps even the majority, of the private clubs seem to be getting the message. The big Red Men club in Williamsport, once perhaps the chintziest of givers, have upped their donations and are keeping good, detailed records in accordance with the new state law. Same with the Williamsport American Legion.

The Funkstown American Legion is the second largest tip jar house in the county - yet it didn't depend too heavily on meeting room giveaways to meet it's legal mandate. In the second half of 1986 it cut some meaningful checks - $8,000 in scholarships, $1,000 to CASA and $1,000 to the Community Free Clinic, for example.

The Clear Spring American Legion is not in the top ten in Washington County tip jar sales. But among other things, it put $500 in the Clear Spring Middle school computer program, paid a $775 medical bill and handed out $5,500 in scholarships last July. To my mind, that's the spirit of a club giving back to the community that supports it.

But overall, the Washington County Club Association's position remains the same - grab all the cash you can grab and forget the county's needy. County Commissioner Ron Bowers correctly called the clubs latest dodge "a frivolous lawsuit that deals with greed."

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