Prince George's County officials estimate that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to bring legalized slot machines to Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill would cost $9.5 million a year in expanded services. That price tag, officials contend, would entitle the county to a significantly larger cut of slots revenue than Ehrlich's proposed formula provides.
According to an analysis by the county's Office of Management and Budget, increased traffic around Rosecroft, and Laurel Park in neighboring Anne Arundel County, would cost at least $1 million in extra road resurfacing and repairs. Upgraded police and ambulance coverage would come to $3 million . The costliest item in the county's calculus is in the area of social services for compulsive gamblers: $5.5 million
"This is just at a minimum of what we will incur," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who recently provided the figures to the county's legislative delegation as it weighs whether slot machines are the answer to the state's growing budget deficit.
"We really don't know what the social impact will be," Johnson said.
Hungry for revenue to fill what could turn into a $2 billion hole in the budget, Ehrlich wants to authorize owners of three tracks -- Rosecroft, Laurel and Pimlico in Baltimore -- to operate 10,500 slot machines combined. Another track to be built in Allegany County would be permitted to run 1,000 machines.
Under the latest formula proposed by Ehrlich, local governments would receive 3.8 percent of the anticipated $1.5 billion a year in slots revenue. That share, divided among the jurisdictions with slots, would yield about $18 million a year for Prince George's. Johnson says the local set-aside is unacceptable, and he wants it raised to 15 percent. He argues that with one track in the county and another on its border, Prince George's would be the local government that faces the largest potential impact. The $9.5 million in new costs, combined with an expected $15 million cut in state aid during the next fiscal year, officials say, mean that the county faces a $24 million hit.
"It's not just about covering the cost," said Nancy Lineman, a Johnson spokeswoman. "It [$18 million] is not enough of the pie."
"The numbers have to change," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's). "We have to come up with something reasonable and rational."
Officials in Prince George's and the other counties that would host slot machines are also disturbed by Ehrlich's proposal to strip localities of zoning authority in all slots-related matters.. Another amendment to Ehrlich's plan would require local governments to act "expeditiously" on all permit applications related to slots at racetracks
State officials say they are concerned that delays at the local level could interfere with the state's ability to collect licensing fees.
What is this?" asked Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D). "Am I to understand that a citizen's quality of life is to be dictated by the gambling industry?"
Nor did she think that the move was wise with the slots legislation facing political challenges. "Why would you do those things that create such local clamor that it would make it even harder to pass the bill?" she said. "That's not good politics, let alone good law."
Added Lineman, Johnson's spokeswoman: "It is safe to say that anytime local control is taken away by the state, it's not a good thing."
Members of the Prince George's legislative delegation have repeatedly questioned whether the benefits of introducing slots to Rosecroft would ultimately outweigh the costs, especially when increased traffic, crime and need for social services are factored into the equation. As a result, many lawmakers have remained undecided.
"We don't want to be in a break-even mode, especially since we have to bear the brunt of the social ills," said Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's). "It could probably make you stop to think, is it really worth it? I'm not sure I'm willing to say until we check out the final numbers."
Within the county's cost analysis, the area of social services could prompt some debate. The county extrapolates from national estimates of 3 million compulsive gamblers to conclude that Prince George's is home to about 8,600. Assuming that just two percent of those seek treatment, at a cost of $32,000 per person, the county concludes that it is looking at a $5.5 million annual outlay. Some experts say that is too high.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said there is wide debate over what the social costs are associated with opening casinos or installing slots at racetracks. Oregon, for example, spends $3.2 million, or $1,500 for every problem gambler in the state seeking help.
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.