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W.Va. business owners weigh in on gray machines

March 14, 2001

W.Va. business owners weigh in on gray machines



By BOB PARTLOW and DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writers


Business owners and others who operate gray machines in the Eastern Panhandle generally agreed Tuesday they don't object to the state legalizing and taxing the machines, as long as the tax is fair.

"I don't have a problem with it being legalized," said Mike Keller, owner of Duffey's Tavern in Berkeley Plaza in Martinsburg. His business was one of 68 identified in Berkeley County as having the machines in a count recently completed by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. He has 10 machines.

He said he could accept a proposal - one of many floating around the state Legislature - to let everyone have the same number of machines, then tax them at a reasonable rate.

"I really think they ought to be fair about it," he said. In addition to the 6 percent sales tax, a tax of 20 percent on the net proceeds might be fair, he said.

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The owner of the Bakerton Market in Jefferson County expressed much the same attitude - he wants the tax to be fair.

Jerry Ballenger said one proposal he has heard would give 15 percent of the revenues to the state and rest to business owners.

"That would be great, but I don't see that as realistic," said Ballenger, who has four machines in his store.

Ballenger fears that as the proposal to regulate the machines moves through the Legislature, different committees will take cuts of the revenue, leaving little for small business, which he feels is already overburdened with regulations by the state.

Gray machines are video poker machines that are legal if played for amusement. It is illegal, however, to pay cash winnings to players. The law against making payouts to customers has not been enforced, leaving the machines in a gray area, and from that comes their name. Gov. Bob Wise has said he wants to regulate, restrict and tax the machines.

Some people contacted Tuesday offered no comment about their machines because it is a sensitive legal and political issue.

"I really don't want to talk about it," said Richard Shutts, who has 10 machines in his grocery store in Bunker Hill. "I talked to my attorney this morning and he told me not to say anything about it."

Benny Crowell, owner of Crowell's Village Store on North Queen Street, said the state is so heavily into the gambling business now that officials should just legalize the machines.

"They just need the money; that's what this is all about," he said of proposed legislation. "Legalize it or forget it, that's my belief."

"They've been here for a long time, so let's make some money on them," said Butch Pennington, who owns three machines at Big Apple Liquors. "They aren't going to go away, no matter what we do."

The machines are popular because they pay out at a rate of 84 percent to 86 percent, compared to 12 percent to 14 percent at Charles Town Races, he said.

"To me, gambling is like alcohol, you can either regulate it or people will do it behind your back," said Hank Torlone of Torlone Pizza in Harpers Ferry. "Look at prohibition.

"The independent businessman does all the work, so he should get the bulk of any taxes collected,"

Like others, he said machines don't actually produce too much money. Their seven machines produce about $200 a week, he said.

"I think a percentage of about 40 percent for the state and 60 percent for the owner on the net would be about right," said John Gall, owner of Little Inn on East King Street. He operates three machines.

A man who answered the phone Tuesday afternoon at the Charles Town Moose Club said the state's proposal to regulate the machines "stinks."

If the Charles Town Races has slot machines, businesses should be able to have gray machines, said the man, who would not give his name.

Jim French, owner of Oasis Club on U.S. North, said the number of machines should be restricted or they will balloon out of control, as they did in South Carolina, which finally banned them.

"It's just unbelievable where they're at," he said. He also said people with concerns about gambling should look around and see how much already occurs.

"There's big money to be made in Bingo," which is played by charitable groups.

A manager at Billy Jack's, an armwrestling tavern on North Mildred Street in Charles Town, said he has no problem with the state regulating the machines. The bar has two machines, but they are not the center of attraction at the bar, said the manager, who identified himself as Big-Arm Boy.

There are two people who play the machines and one of them is sick, Big-Arm Boy said.

"The videos are here just because they take up a spot in the corner," he said.

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