Games: Of chance
BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
After years of trying to convince the state Legislature to raise the prize limits on small games of chance, groups have gotten their wish.
But at a price.
Under new laws passed last year, veterans posts, fraternal clubs and fire companies operating games such as raffles and punch cards under the Local Option Small Games of Chance Act are finding themselves buried under a mountain of paperwork.
"The Legislature created this monster, and they gave no thought at all to all the hoops we have to go through to comply," said John Zagorski, past commander and treasurer of the Lititz Springs Veterans of Foreign Wars.
He isn't the only one complaining.
Veterans and fraternal groups made so much noise about the new regulations that Gov. Tom Corbett decided earlier this month to postpone the starting date for monthly, detailed gambling reports for a year -- until February 2014.
Zagorski said the new law, officially called Act 2 of 2012, is "a mess" and needs to be reworked.
Jim Vollrath, an American Legion official at Post 34 in Lancaster, said Corbett's decision to delay the new reporting requirement was a good one.
"I think the legislators who came up with the bill weren't really sure what they wanted, so that created confusion on our part," he said.
In the past, clubs were fined for not having financial records available when enforcement officials would drop in unannounced. The new law has put pressure on club members to provide more details on a monthly basis about their revenue and donations.
The issue is a big one for members of private clubs -- and the organizations they contribute to -- in nearly every corner of Lancaster County. For instance, the Lititz Springs VFW in 2012 handed out more than $184,000 to the community. The money helps wounded and aged veterans, as well as fire companies and police departments that need equipment; it puts uniforms on the backs of Little Leaguers and supplies tents for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
The legislation, Vollrath said, was a step in the right direction on at least one issue.
The new law has increased daily prize limits from $500 to $1,000; weekly limits from $5,000 to $25,000; and raffle limits from $5,000 to $10,000 during a calendar month.
The law also allows clubs to keep 30 percent of the gaming profits. Previous law required all proceeds from small games of chance to be donated.
But Zagorski said legislators should let clubs take more than that, arguing that 30 percent doesn't give clubs enough money to pay for utilities, rent, taxes and insurance.
"If clubs are allowed to keep just 10 percent more of the gaming revenue, it would go a long way," Zagorski said, adding that they can't use the money to pay for food, alcohol or wages.
Nearly all of Lancaster County's Republican legislators -- Sens. Lloyd Smucker and Mike Brubaker and Reps. Ryan Aument, Bryan Cutler, Gordon Denlinger and Dave Hickernell -- voted against the new law, saying they didn't like the expansion of some games of chance and the higher payouts the new law allows.
Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican, and Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat, supported the legislation.
Todd Merlina, enforcement officer supervisor with the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which enforces small games of chance laws, also is in favor of the law.
"The privilege of running small games of chance should come with accountability," he said, adding that the new record-keeping regulations are reasonable and long overdue.
The officer, whose regional jurisdiction includes Lancaster County, said it's not unusual to see clubs generate more than $50,000 from games in a single week.
"We're talking about a lot of money here and a pattern of clubs misusing the money," he said.
"Failure to maintain complete and truthful records" is a common violation for which games operators are cited, Merlina said. The next two most cited violations are exceeding the payout limits and improper use of proceeds.
In 2012, 70 organizations statewide were cited, and 63 received warnings for absent or incomplete records.
One club cited for missing records was Fred Barley VFW Post 5667 in Elizabethtown.
The new leader of the post, Donald Kissinger Sr., said maintaining better records might have helped former officials keep finances in order.
"We need a paper trail to make sure the money isn't being misused or misappropriated," he said, explaining that former leaders were failing to stay on top of the bills.
Kissinger, who was brought in to turn things around at the post, says he fully supports the effort to maintain complete records.
"It's better for the club, and for the community, if everyone knows where everything is going," he said. "It might be a little more time, but it needs to be done."
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