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Clear Spring Legion files for tip jar grant

February 04, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

After years of opposing gambling regulations in Washington County, the Clear Spring American Legion has apparently decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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The club turned over more than $11,000 to the Washington County Gaming Commission in 1997. In November, it applied to the Gaming Commission for a $5,000 grant to fund scholarships.

It is the first time a private club has applied for Gaming Commission money, and if it the panel agrees to the request next Tuesday, it would, in effect, amount to a partial rebate to the organization.

The Legion and the county's other 28 clubs that offer tip jar gambling contribute 15 percent of their gross profits on tip jars to the gaming fund.

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The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association receives 40 percent of those funds and the Gaming Commission distributes the rest to charities.

Washington County residents spend millions of dollars a year on tip jars, a popular, lottery-like form of gambling.

In 1995, a state law took effect taxing the profits county taverns make on the games. A year later, nonprofit clubs were added to the law.

The Clear Spring American Legion raised about $135,112 from tip jars in 1997 and contributed $11,222 to the Gaming Commission, according to documents the organization filed with its application.

Kathy M. Schilens, director of the Gaming Commission, said the Legion meets the requirement that gaming fund recipients be nonprofit organizations. It is up to the Gaming Commission members to decide whether it is deserving, she said.

Gaming Commission Chairman Fred R. Rohrer said it is inappropriate to comment on the application until the commission announces its funding decisions on Tuesday.

At least one commission member, however, said a club should not receive funds.

"It is not proper," said Betty Meyers, one of the panel's seven members.

James R. Morgan, the Legion's commander, said the organization needs the money for its annual scholarship program. He said the Clear Spring Legion does not reap the huge gaming windfall that many other clubs do.

"We're just a small post. We don't do a percentage of what the other clubs do," he said.

In its application to the Gaming Commission, the Legion's finance officer, David H. Witmer, wrote that the scholarship fund helps pay college costs for five Clear Spring High School seniors.

Last year, the club gave $4,500 in scholarships, according to documents filed with the application.

Recipients must be in need and maintain a 3.0 grade point average or better.

"Higher education means better citizens for Washington County and better leaders for the future of our county," Witmer wrote in the application.

"When you further a student's education, all citizens will benefit. Education brings with it a better way of life, new ideas to be used by everyone," he wrote.

The application states that most of the recipients attend Hagerstown Community College. A few have attended schools out of the county and outside Maryland, but Witmer wrote that most of them have returned to the county.

"Some of our past recipients have returned to Washington County as lawyers, health care workers, teachers and several are now working for the National Park Service," he wrote.

Some critics of the application, however, noted that the clubs are allowed to keep 85 percent of their gambling profits.

"I can't really see a club applying for a grant for the main reason that that's where we get the money," said former Gaming Commission member Susan T. Tuckwell. "It seems to me that's in conflict with the intent of the law."

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the idea of a club applying for a Gaming Commission grant never came up when the legislation was drafted.

"I'd have to struggle with that one. That's kind of stretching it," said Donoghue, who helped steer the legislation through the General Assembly as chairman of the county's delegation.

Under the law, which was revised last year, clubs must pay 15 percent of their gross tip jar profits to the Gaming Commission and may spend the rest as they see fit.

"It's not regulated in any way," Schilens said.

Schilens said the Gaming Commission distributed more than $1.03 million last September.

On Tuesday, it will distribute $1.2 million, Schilens said. About $722,168 of that sum will go to charities. The commission must choose from a record-high 100 requests totaling $1.6 million, she said.

Each application is reviewed separately by three of the panel's seven members, and Schilens said requests for more than $35,000 are reviewed by all seven members.

The gaming law took effect in 1995 and clubs made their first payments a year later. In fiscal year 1996, clubs were required to contribute 5 percent of their gambling profits to the gaming fund and donate another 5 percent to approved charitable causes.

In fiscal year 1997, the contribution level increased to 15 percent, with half going to the Gaming Commission for distribution and half to charities.

Last year, the level was supposed to rise to 20 percent, but Schilens said the clubs complained that the rules governing in-kind donations and which organizations could receive the money were confusing.

"There was so much paperwork involved with the process of splitting it up," she said.

So the General Assembly approved changes to the law last year that required a flat 15 percent contribution to the gaming fund.

The Gaming Commission distributes money twice each year, in February and September. It accepts applications in May and November.

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