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Tip jar changes offered

February 16, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - The Washington County legislative delegation voted Wednesday to cut charities' percentage of tip jar gambling profits in order to reduce the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt.

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Lawmakers also agreed to other changes to the gambling law, including one designed to offset the charitable loss by promoting more gambling at bars.

The delegation still has to vote on two other pieces of a broad legislative package to be submitted to the Maryland General Assembly.

One would require the county government to put an extra $400,000 a year toward the debt. The other would double the hotel-motel tax to 6 percent to raise money for the debt as well as economic development projects such as a minor league baseball stadium.

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The delegation voted Wednesday to change the tip jar gambling distribution formula. Instead of giving charities 60 percent and the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association 40 percent, the money is to be split evenly.

That's expected to generate about $250,000 for the fire and rescue association that the county can then put toward debt reduction.

Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington, was the lone vote against changing the gambling law. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, was absent.

To offset the loss to charities, Del. Christopher B. Shank suggested allowing bars and taverns to keep half of their tip jar profits.

Right now, bars and taverns pay $45 per jar or 50 percent, whichever is less.

The formula makes record-keeping more complicated and discourages bars from selling larger jars, said Shank, R-Washington.

Shank said the change might boost the Gaming Fund by 5 percent. The fund has been increasing at the rate of about 7 percent a year.

"I don't think we're going to see a stunning increase. It will partially offset the changes we're making," he said.

The Washington County Gaming Commission will report the effect of the change to lawmakers every six months, on the suggestion of Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Munson said he wants to "make sure gambling just doesn't run away in Washington County."

The delegation also voted to make the following changes to the tip jar gambling law:

- Cap the amount of money the Gaming Commission can award to a charity at $50,000. There is no limit on the number of applications one charity can make for the twice-yearly grants.

Some of the lawmakers questioned the need for a cap, arguing it should be up to the delegation-appointed Gaming Commissioners to decide.

Shank said he is concerned that future requests for grants will skyrocket unless there's a cap. Munson told one lawmaker to see him privately for an explanation.

- Stagger the terms of the Gaming Commissioners so new members have time to learn about the volunteer job of distributing money to charity.

- Put a 2003 expiration date on the changes so lawmakers can see how the law is working.

Shank suggested yet another change to the law, but lawmakers delayed action until they get more information.

Shank wants to require the Fire and Rescue Association to use part of its Gaming Commission grant to help fire companies based on need. Right now the money is distributed equally among fire and rescue companies.

"It's a start at fairness. We could do more to make it a more progressive system," Shank said.

The Washington County Commissioners have been studying the county's fire service problems.

"I'd like to hear a little bit more results," Shank said.

The delegation was to meet today to vote on the debt reduction portion of the legislative package.

Lawmakers want to require the Washington County Commissioners to put an extra $400,000 a year toward debt reduction.

In addition, Shank suggested appointing a blue ribbon panel of citizens to suggest other ways to reduce the debt and implement a cost-cutting plan suggested by Commissioner William J. Wivell.

Munson wants to allow individuals and businesses to make donations to the debt reduction fund.

The delegation probably won't vote until next week on the tax increase part of the plan.

Lawmakers said they want to ask each of the municipalities whether they support the increase, which would generate $369,000 to be split among the towns based on population.

Municipalities that don't support the tax would not get any of the money, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Delegation Chairman Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said lawmakers are talking about making major changes to the tax increase proposal but he wouldn't give specifics.

At Saturday's public hearing on the plan, citizens were firmly behind the debt reduction plan.

However, there were mixed messages on using the tax increase to fund a stadium.

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