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Some officials fear cut in charity funds

February 07, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

The director and the chairman of the Washington County Gaming Commission Monday criticized a state plan that would reduce funding to local charities by at least $250,000 a year.

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If approved, the plan developed by members of the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, would pay down the county's pretreatment debt, offset county water and sewer rates and finance tourism projects such as a minor league baseball stadium for Hagerstown.

The plan would reduce by 10 percent, or $258,000, the annual amount of tip jar funds that would be given to charities through the Washington County Gaming Commission, which distributes profits from tip jar gambling.

"I don't like it," Gaming Commission Chairman Lou Thomas said Monday. "I think it's kind of wrong."

"There will be a lot of charities hurt," he said.

His comments came during a break in hearings the Gaming Commission held to hear pleas from 84 groups that submitted applications totaling $1.4 million.

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The commission has about $678,000 to distribute to the charities this round of funding. Grants will be announced Feb. 15.

Thomas said he thinks the delegation can find a better place to get money to pay for the debt and a new stadium than by taking it from charities.

Gaming Commission Director Vanessa Hines agreed.

"It is going to mean an impact to the charities, surely," Hines said. "There is probably a lot of other means to solve the water and sewer debt. This just seems like an easy fix."

She did not want to comment further, she said.

Joyce Chabot, president of St. John's Shelter for the Homeless Inc., said she feared the cuts, if approved, could result in more homeless people in Washington County.

"It would be a shame to take away money from them (the charities)," Chabot said.

Under the current Gaming Commission formula, county fire and rescue companies get 40 percent of the money raised and the remaining 60 percent is distributed to charities twice a year.

The proposal, which requires General Assembly approval, calls for a 50-50 split, which would give the fire companies an estimated $258,964 more than they get under the current formula and could reduce by the same amount the funds the county gives the fire companies.

The delegation's plan would double the county's hotel-motel tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

That shift in funds, coupled with a share of the increased hotel tax proceeds, is intended to help the county meet a mandate under the plan to spend $400,000 a year to pay down the pretreatment fund debt.

Spokesmen for some nonprofit agencies contacted Monday, including the United Way of Washington County, said they did not want to comment on the plan or its potential impact on them.

Some who did comment said that while they were not enthusiastic about the plan, they understood the need for it.

Lori Rice, director of the Community Free Clinic, said she doesn't have a problem with the plan if attacking the debt problem is considered a high priority to the community.

"The money needs to be spent where it does the most good for the largest number of people," Rice said. "I think the community good is what's important."

"We are always grateful" for Gaming Commission funds, she said.

Food Resources Inc. Executive Director Brad Sell said with the increased amount of tip jar funds available for distribution for the Gaming Commission since 1996, he thinks there's enough money to fund a plan to deal with the stadium and the debt.

Gaming Commission funds available for charities have increased from $234,652 in fiscal year 1996 to a projected $1.5 million in the current fiscal year that began July 1.

Sell said he supports a new stadium and said the Hagerstown Suns traditionally have contributed to organizations, including his.

"The Suns bend over backwards to help nonprofits," he said.

Twice a year, the Gaming Commission distributes a portion of the local proceeds from tip jars to local charities.

When the last grants were announced in September, the Gaming Commission had denied 14 applications, mostly because the organizations were not recognized as charities by the Internal Revenue Service, Thomas said.

In the latest round of funding, there is more than $1.1 million in the tip jar account, Hines said. The Gaming Commission is required to give 40 percent of that money, or almost $452,000, to the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association, she said.

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