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Gaming panel's decision gives music promoters the blues

February 12, 1999

It was appropriate that the Oscar award nominations and the Washington County Gaming Commission charitable awards were announced on the same day, since both offer such good grist for debate.

The Gaming Commission was responsible for handing out nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in tip jar tax money to charity. But let it never be said that handing out free money is easy.

Non-profit groups come out of the woodwork when there's cash to be given away, and roughly 100 organizations applied to the commission for funds. A few of these groups were denied money, and some didn't get as much as they wanted, so there are bound to be some hurt feelings and some second guessing.

For example, why did the Washington County Ag Center, which has already been richly endowed by Washington County taxpayers, receive $40,000 and the SPCA get nothing?

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On the other hand, why not? I'm slowly becoming a convert to the ag center, which its backers have developed into quite a nice facility - although it certainly hasn't, as purported, come cheap for county taxpayers. The ag center should be admired for what it is: A fine project developed through a public and private partnership. It's what happens when the community takes action and the government responds in a positive fashion. (And no commissioner ever said anything as incongruous as "I support the ag center, but I'm against paying for it.")

Of the other awards, even what I believe to be the greatest misfire by the Gaming Commission is at least an explainable misfire, and that's the failure to fund the Western Maryland Blues Fest.

With apologies to the Fourth of July at Antietam, the Blues Fest is the most important tourism event in Washington County. Still in its infancy, this is a crucial time for the festival, as it works to build a reputation and attract big-name talent to Hagerstown. A $5,000 to $10,000 grant from the Gaming Commission would seem to be a no-brainer - especially considering that the smaller Augustoberfest received $5,000.

The Blues Fest got $5,000 a year ago, a grant the Gaming Commission now says was improper because the festival is not, on its own, a charitable organization as defined by IRS tax law. Instead, the organization has operated under the non profit umbrella of the City of Hagerstown. The distinction seems maddeningly technical, but it's important.

When the gambling law was drawn, its authors wanted the gambling money to be used purely for charity - as the private clubs were supposed to do 20 years ago, but didn't. The authors didn't want gambling profits to be used to bail out governments that had overspent.

Even though the Blues Fest operates with the help of the city, the County Commissioners' attorney believes the Gaming Commission was free to fund the festival. The Gaming Commission attorney disagrees.

What the Blues Fest must do, and probably will, is become a non profit agency independent of the city. That amounts to a paper shuffle that is rather pointless, except to comply specifically with Gaming Commission rules.

If this is done, the Gaming Commission may fund the Blues Fest six months from now, plus back-fund it for the current six months.

Unfortunately, that's little comfort for the festival, which will be held in June, a couple months before the Gaming Commission's next round of awards. You can't exactly tell an artist his check will be in the mail just as soon as moretip jar money is passed out.

Some hard feelings have developed, with some even suggesting a county conspiracy against the city. Further, Blues Fest officials say, the commission was slow to notify them of changes in the festival's eligibility.

From the perspective of the Blues Fest, this is nuts. Why can't the commission be just a little flexible, particularly to a great organization that's brought success and fame to Washington County? This is a fine way to say thanks.

From the Gaming Commission's perspective, the county gambling law is fragile, with many enemies. Its decisions need to be as air-tight as possible, lest the door be left open for attack by those who would rather see gambling money go into their own greedy pockets instead of to charity.

Both sides have a point. These organizations are truly two of the community's good guys and it's a shame for them to spend energy jousting each other.

A solution seems simple. The County Commissioners could get an assurance from the Gaming Commissioners that the Blues Fest will be funded retroactively next fall if it files for non profit status from the IRS. Then the county could loan Blues Fest that amount to help ease cash-flow crunches the festival will face in June. When the Gaming Commission makes its next round of awards, the festival would repay the county.

This not only would be a practical solution for the festival, it would ease tensions and provide a goodwill gesture from the county toward the city. Five or $10,000 means a lot to the festival, but it's way too small to be a cause of irritation between government organizations.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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