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Video lottery proves boon to Jefferson County

April 22, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - By the end of the fiscal year that begins July 1, revenue from video lottery games at Charles Town Races is projected to have funded nearly $2.3 million worth of improvements in Jefferson County.

Some of the money has already been used to launch a paid ambulance service, upgrade 911 service, buy a sheriff's department cruiser and buy equipment for "Operation Groundhog," a program that uses a camera to catch people illegally dumping trash at night.

Lottery proceeds have also paid for $245,000 worth of furniture and other equipment for a new magistrate court facility opened this year, $355,000 worth of computer equipment for document scanning in the circuit clerk's office and the county clerk's office, and improvements at the county dog pound and at the Jefferson County Courthouse, according to a report by the Jefferson County Commissioners.

The money has helped pay for an outdoor stage, two baseball diamonds and fencing at Sam Michaels Park; a pavilion at Mount Mission Park near Shannondale, W.Va.; and helped pay for improvements at the county's three public libraries and the Poor House Farm, a historic house the county owns near Leetown, W.Va.

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While there was concern about the impact of allowing video lottery at the track, the County Commissioners say money generated by the machines has made managing the county much easier.

Not only has the money helped the county complete a long list of projects since it started receiving video lottery funds in 1998, it has allowed the commissioners to avoid increasing tax rates, said Commissioner James K. Ruland.

"It's allowed us to fund things we weren't able to fund," said Commissioner Al Hooper.

The track has generated an estimated $57.3 million in video lottery revenue since 1998, the West Virginia Lottery Commission reported.

In fiscal years 1998 and 1999, the county received 2 percent of the revenue generated.

Last year, the state legislature passed a law establishing a formula for sending a share of the money to cities and towns in the county. If the county's 2 percent amounts to more revenue than in the previous year, the excess money is divided between the county and the towns, with the county getting 1.5 percent and the towns getting .5 percent, Ruland said.

In fiscal 1998, the county received $392,000. In fiscal 1999 it received $800,000. In the coming fiscal year the county is projected to receive a little more than $1 million. By the end of fiscal year 2000-2001, video lottery funding to the county over the three-year period is expected to total around $2.3 million, the commissioners said.

Revenue from video lottery has helped allay some concerns that it would have an adverse affect on nearby communities. Shepherdstown Mayor Vince Parmesano said the town has received about $10,000 from video lottery proceeds.

However, he said the town is experiencing some difficulty related to Charles Town Races.

Although a feared increase in crime associated with gambling expansion has not occurred, Parmesano said police resources have been strained.

With state police and sheriff's department personnel being used to handle increased traffic-related problems around the track, Parmesano said, fewer officers from those agencies have been available to help the Shepherdstown Police Department respond to its calls.

Many areas are benefiting from the new revenue the video lottery is generating.

Jefferson County ranks last among the state's 55 counties in per capita funding for libraries. During this year's budget process, the county's three public libraries asked the county commissioners to provide up to $30,000, primarily to expand library hours to better serve a growing population.

The county was able to give the libraries nearly $39,000, $15,000 of it from video lottery revenue, the commissioners said.

Some see the growth in video lottery gambling as a mixed blessing.

Suzanne Koenig, president of the board of directors for the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library, has mixed feelings about using the gambling funds.

"I see it as tainted money," Koenig said. "But if it's going to come in, I would like to see it go to educational programs. We have such tremendous growth in the county that people are not used to paying for services like that."

Others in the county are relieved expected problems did not materialize.

Sheriff William Senseney was among those who feared an increase in crime related to the gambling. Senseney and Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael D. Thompson announced in 1994 they were opposed to video lottery as "bad policy." Thompson predicted the county would see an increase in petty crimes such as forgery, credit card fraud, worthless checks and theft.

Now, Senseney says: "I would say on balance it's been a real boon to the county. They don't create any more problems out there than they did.

"In fact, I think the current owners do a good job of policing themselves," said Senseney, whose department purchased a new cruiser with $25,000 in video lottery money.

The county commissioners, meanwhile, have vowed to only use video lottery money for one-time spending on capital projects rather than to fund ongoing programs or personnel. That way, the county will not "become addicted" to the money, said Commission President James G. Knode.

"I think that's a wise strategy for this money," said Bill Bork Jr., director of marketing at the track.

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