Officials' vote tips balance against gambling panel

Frederick Co. board rejects raffle study

June 23, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Ending immediate hopes for tighter regulations on tip jars, the Frederick County commissioners voted 3-2 yesterday against creating a task force to study whether profits from the popular raffle game are landing in the wrong hands.

"I think we're doing a fine job of enforcement through our Sheriff's Department and our permits office," said Commissioner Ilona M. Hogan, who cast the decisive vote a week after her colleagues deadlocked while she was vacationing in eastern Europe. "If an entity is shown to be a bad actor, they are banned from playing in the game."

The commissioners agreed to ask the county's auditing department to consider looking at tip jars, but that would not likely happen until next summer.

Yesterday's meeting was sparsely attended, a far different scene from June 13, when 45 representatives from veterans groups and other organizations packed the hearing room to voice opposition to the proposed task force. Hogan said she was lobbied more fervently on the issue than on tax increases she voted against this month.

The vote was in response to a plea from state Del. Sue Hecht, a Democrat representing Frederick and Washington counties, who urged the commissioners to appoint a task force as a way to study whether local charities were receiving enough of the proceeds from the game.

Under county law, nonprofit groups can form relationships with bars that operate tip jars.

The nonprofit groups are supposed to receive 70 percent of the proceeds, while bars can keep 30 percent.

Nonprofit organizations can also operate the raffle games and keep all proceeds. Many fraternal organizations, veterans groups and fire halls operate games, while most charities choose to team with bars.

In December, Hecht presented estimates suggesting that of the $5.1 million in revenue taken in by tip jar operators last year, $650,000 made it to charities.

Charity organizations have complained about being pressured by bars to accept less proceeds, or lose their relationship with the bar.

Hecht said yesterday she was encouraged the commissioners had at least discussed having the audit department look at the game.

"The bottom line is we're going to find out it's underregulated," Hecht said. "Though it's government-sanctioned, we are not paying attention."

Tip jars, a game in which participants buy $1 tickets with numbers that can win cash instantly or after a drawing, are legal at clubs and fire halls across Maryland. Only Frederick and Washington counties allow it in bars and restaurants.

In Frederick, $27.4 million was wagered on tip jars last year, while $22.6 was wagered on Maryland lottery games.

"People working at bars - who's sticking money in whose pockets?" asked David P. Gray, president of the commissioners, who voted for the task force. "When there's that much money around, there's trouble."

Gray said a task force might have given residents confidence that the county was overseeing the game, but he did not want Frederick to change its laws to resemble those in Washington County. There, a commission distributes tip jar proceeds to charities. Tip jar operators in Frederick say they cherish having the freedom to determine which causes get their money.

But Gray said he was concerned that Frederick's laws force charities to rely on taverns for help. "When you have a youth organization dependent on a local bar," he said, "it seems a little incongruous."

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