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Jefferson County voters to decide table games issue Saturday

June 08, 2007|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - If you live in Jefferson County, W.Va., and haven't decided on whether table games should be included at Charles Town Races & Slots, you're running out of time.

Polls were to open today at 6:30 a.m. in a special election in which Jefferson County residents will decide whether the local thoroughbred racetrack should be allowed to have casino table games. Polls will close at 7:30 p.m.

Local residents have been debating the issue for weeks in the run-up to the election, and at least four public forums have been held on the games

Proponents say a favorable vote will mean at least 75 casino table games will be allowed at the racetrack, including blackjack and roulette. It also will mean new additions for the racetrack, such as a 500-room hotel.

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Opponents say they fear table games will be accompanied by more crime and increased traffic congestion on already busy roads, among other worries.

They also note that the racetrack owners are not providing extra money for law enforcement.

All of the county's 31 voting precincts will be open today, although one of the polling places - Precinct 23A and B - will be at the Country Day School along W.Va. 51 instead of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Summit Point Road, Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan said.

The courthouse will be closed to the public today, but voters with questions can call 304-728-3215 between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., she said.

Maghan said earlier that 3,631 voters, or about 11 percent of the county's registered voters, had cast early ballots in the election, breaking early voting totals in previous elections.

The Associated Press reported that in the 2006 general election, 7.8 percent of voters cast early ballots.

Officials at Charles Town Races & Slots, owned by Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc., say they need the games to stay competitive with gambling in other states. Racetrack officials and other proponents, such as the Jefferson County Board of Education, tout the benefits of the games, such as the estimated $1.5 million in annual table games revenue that would be steered to the local school system for construction of new facilities.

John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., said opponents have claimed the racetrack will be exempt from the county's hotel and motel tax, but the racetrack will pay the tax and the county will receive at least $225,000 per year from a smaller 150-room hotel the racetrack is planning.

Finamore declined to say how much the racetrack has spent in its campaign to promote casino table games, and said he is not sure the racetrack is required to disclose it.

Renny Smith, spokeswoman for VoteNoTableGames.org, a local group opposing the games, said the opposition to the games is based "almost more on feelings than facts."

Smith said most people who are opposed to the games do not feel comfortable with one of the largest employers in the county being a gambling facility.

"We're all just people that heard table games and said, 'Oh no, We can do better than that,'" Smith said.

Smith said she once lived in New Jersey and voted yes for gambling that led to casinos in Atlantic City. Gambling was sought for Atlantic City because its economy was in dire straits, Smith said.

"But we're not in dire straits," Smith said.

The board of directors of the local chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) has decided not to take a position on table games, said Randy Funkhouser, president of the association.

The HBPA had been negotiating with racetrack owners on issues surrounding the games and reached an impasse, Funkhouser said.

As a result, the board decided to stay neutral, neither supporting nor opposing the games, Funkhouser said.

"There were a number of issues on the table. They were never completely worked out," said Funkhouser, who declined to say what the issues were.

Table games are allowed as a result of a bill passed in the recent session of the Legislature. The bill also set up a procedure for county elections on the games.

If the referendum on casino gambling passes today, Jefferson County residents have the right to call for another referendum on table games, but they must wait five years for such balloting.

Once the five-year period is up, county residents could call for a referendum on table games or slot machines at any time, Finamore said.

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