In the land of tip jars, casinos not welcome Western Md. clubs, businesses, fire halls rake in millions

November 10, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSPORT -- The Redmen who congregate in the sprawling brick lodge outside town don't think much of legalizing Las Vegas-style casinos. Williamsport, along with the rest of Western Maryland, likes a more down-home style of gambling.

That means tip jars, the low-key numbers game that has become a crucial source of income for clubs, fire halls and taverns across the region in the past 20 years.

Dollar by dollar, Western Maryland tip jars are expected to generate more than $20 million in profits in the next year, much of it unregulated and untaxed. The Williamsport Redmen are likely to take in more than $800,000 during that period.

"I don't hear many people in Washington County wanting a casino," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat from Hagerstown. "I think people feel we're maxed out on gambling already."

If there was any doubt about the scale of tip-jar gambling, it vanished last month when Washington County operators were required for the first time to file reports documenting their wagering profits. According to the reports, gambling proceeds in this county alone are on a pace to top $12 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

"I knew there was a lot of gambling out there, but I had no idea in the world we were talking about this kind of money," said Bill Feuerstein, chairman of the Washington County Gaming Commission, a tip-jar oversight board that was established this year by the legislature at the request of local officials.

Officials from Washington and Allegany counties are pushing for tighter regulation of tip jars and to require that more of the proceeds go to charity.

The huge profits are a vivid reminder of how much will be at stake for gambling operators in Western Maryland and across the state as the General Assembly considers legalizing casino gambling next year.

Few organizations rely more on gambling than the Redmen's club in Williamsport.

One Saturday in July, for example, the club sold more than $26,000 worth of tip-jar tickets around its comfortable H-shaped bar, yielding a $4,115 profit, according to its report filed with the county.

Thanks to the steady flow of gambling money, the club -- a fraternal organization that traces its roots to the Boston Tea Party, during which protesters dressed as Indians -- has a new brick building, annual dues of $30, a beer for a buck and free sandwiches in the bar every night at 9.

"We couldn't survive without gambling," said Don Hessong, a Redmen's trustee. "Even if you had the building paid for, you'd have to offer some kind of attraction to keep them coming."

In Washington County, the law allows fraternal clubs to keep all of their gambling proceeds. The Redmen were embarrassed this year by a report in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail documenting through tax returns that the group grossed about $700,000 from tip jars in 1993 and gave less than $12,000 to charity.

The Washington County Gaming Commission and some legislators want to amend the law to require nonprofits to give a portion -- perhaps 25 percent -- of their gambling proceeds to charity. In an effort to fend off any change in the law, the Redmen have been giving $1,000 a week to charity in recent months, Mr. Hessong said.

"We wouldn't die, but we'd be wounded," Mr. Hessong said of the proposal to require all tip-jar operators to give some proceeds to charity.

Gambling at for-profit establishments is generally illegal around the state, but counties in Western Maryland allow many bars and taverns to cash in on tip jars.

At Harman's Tavern on the west side of Hagerstown, tip jars generated profits of more than $31,000 in three months, according to its report to the gaming commission. By law, part of that money must go to charity, but the bar was allowed to keep about $17,000.

After expenses, the profit amounts to between $300 and $400 a week, said Donnie Weir, who owns the bar with his sister-in-law. "It's a good side income," said Mr. Weir, 39.

In a typical tip-jar game, several hundred tickets, which cost $1 each, are kept in a box or basket. Inside the ticket is a series of numbers, some of which mean instant prizes, usually $10 or $25. Other tickets are "holders" that give the purchaser a shot at the game's grand prize of $100 or more, which is announced when all the tickets are bought.

The possibility of a big payoff keeps players interested in the game, and that, in turn, keeps them drinking at the bar. An active operation will go through dozens of games on a busy night.

"If a bar says, 'I'm not selling them anymore,' it'll kill their business," said Bill Cook, 49, a Harman's regular who spends $50 to $60 a week on the gambling. "People will go where the jars are."

Washington County's gambling law requires tip-jar operators to keep track of every game played, but other counties have much less oversight or none at all.

Frederick County requires operators to file reports, but county officials pay little attention to them. In Allegany County, gambling is basically unregulated.

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