Restaurateurs critical of 'tip-jar' games

January 25, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- A countywide restaurant-owners group here plans to stop "tip-jar" gambling -- games of chance that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for charity -- unless lawmakers move to regulate the games.

The action by the Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association has prompted a meeting today in Annapolis of the county's legislative delegation, the business group, and the charities that stand to lose from its gambling revenue.

Louis Thomas, legislative chairman for the restaurant association, said the group wants lawmakers to impose regulations on the games to ensure accountability of tip-jar revenue. Such a measure, he said, would prevent skimming and other illegal tip-jar activity.

"Something has to be done," said Mr. Thomas, who owns a Boonsboro bar and restaurant. "If legislators don't want to do something, we're not going to get back into it. Money is not going where it should be going. It's not right."

Previous attempts to regulate tip-jar operations have been unsuccessful. And any such attempt to provide some accountability could have ramifications elsewhere in the state, lawmakers said.

"This is not a new problem," said Del. John Donoghue, the Democrat chair of the county delegation. "It's an issue that we weren't prepared to deal with this session. But it's not going to go away, and we need to find a solution that is agreeable to everyone."

Games are played by paying $1 to buy a ticket from a jar. The paper contains a series of numbers, some that mean instant winnings and others that make players eligible for larger jackpots.

"It's social recreation for a lot of people. People really enjoy it," Mr. Thomas said. Tip jars are almost exclusive to the bars, restaurants and private clubs in Western Maryland. No authority seems to know how much money the tip jars generate for the nonprofit clubs and organizations the run them.

But allegations of skimming or illegal jar activity have been raised for years. The issue of regulation became the focal point of the sheriff's race in Frederick County last year.

Mr. Thomas said the restaurant and beverage group formed a nonprofit foundation several years ago to better compete against private clubs that run tip jars and to ensure that profits went to charities. He said businesses were losing customers to the private clubs because meals and drinks subsidized by tip-jar profits were cheaper.

Since 1988, the business group's nonprofit arm has donated $1.2 million to Washington County groups, such as the YMCA, United Way and the Boys' and Girls' Club.

"What concerns me the most is that the last thing we need is for these charities to suddenly not be able to provide much needed services to very important sectors of society," Mr. Donoghue said.

One beneficiary of tip jars, Jim Deaner, executive director of the Boys' and Girls' Club of Washington County, said his group stands to lose about 9 percent of its $160,000 annual budget without the group's annual contributions.

"They have really helped us a lot," he said. "It's money we definitely wouldn't be getting otherwise. It's money that is real hard to generate without help. It's a big help to our organization."

Another beneficiary, Greg Price, chief of the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Company, which also runs tip-jar games, said he is not opposed to any kind of accountability. The fire company raises about $70,000 each year -- about one-third of its annual budget -- from tip jars, he said.

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