The Calvert County Gambling Permit Review Committee voted Monday to recommend that the county commissioners adopt regulations to allow local nonprofit groups to operate electronic gaming devices that closely resemble slot machines.
The committee voted 4 to 0 to recommend that the commissioners permit groups such as the American Legion, VFW and volunteer fire departments to operate the games, known as electronic pull-tab bingo machines, in their buildings. The Rod 'N' Reel Restaurant in Chesapeake Beach is the only place in Calvert County that legally operates dozens of the machines, which look and sound almost exactly like slots.
"If all that money is going to be coming in, I'd rather see it going to firetrucks and supporting the American Legions instead of seeing it going to a for-profit business," said Dennis Brown, the committee's chairman. "At least this way the money goes to charitable causes within the community."
Brown predicted that the machines would be used for fundraising in nonprofit organizations' halls and headquarters throughout the county if the committee's recommendation is adopted by the commissioners. William "Butch" Jenkins, the fire department representative on the committee's advisory group, said all nine of the county's volunteer fire and rescue companies would probably install the instant bingo machines.
"I'm not sure they would go with it right away, but I would imagine eventually everybody would have some of them," he said.
The committee's decision was prompted by a letter to the county from American Legion Post 206 in Chesapeake Beach, asking whether instant bingo machines in its building were legal. Jack Gregory, first vice commander of the post, said the group has operated two pull-tab machines in its building for years.
Emanuel Demedis, the county attorney, told the group that it could not operate the pull-tab bingo machines without a permit from the commissioners.
"This means that your current practice of dispensing pull tabs on a daily basis is illegal," he wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to the post.
But the county does not have regulations in place to provide nonprofit groups with permits that would allow them to operate pull-tab bingo machines year-round. The Rod 'N' Reel operates its games under a narrowly tailored law passed by the General Assembly that allows companies in Chesapeake Beach to operate instant bingo machines.
So Demedis asked the Gambling Permit Review Committee to create regulations for nonprofits. "From my conversations with the Board [of County Commissioners] about the issue, I believe that it would be willing to approve a provision for the annual issuance of a 'pull-tab' license" to nonprofits, he wrote to the committee on May 26.
The committee's recommendation also calls for significant restrictions on the operation of the pull-tab bingo machines.
Under the proposed regulations, a nonprofit initially would receive permission to operate only five pull-tab machines. The group would have to petition the committee if it wanted to install more.
Brown said that groups such as the American Legion and VFW could operate the machines during their normal operating hours, which often extend from 10 a.m. to midnight. Volunteer fire departments, however, would be able to operate the machines only during permitted events three times a year.
The committee also recommended that nonprofits be forbidden from operating pull-tabs that accept more than $1 per game, far less than some of the machines at the Rod 'N' Reel that accept up to $50 per game.
Gregory said the two machines in use at the American Legion accept up to $20 per game. He said he worries that the committee's recommendations will hurt a revenue source that is critical to the organization's financial health.
"Those pull-tab machines are partially responsible for us keeping our doors open," he said. "If they say we can only put one dollar in at a time, that's what we'll have to do. But I think its the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. People will just end up standing there with stacks of 100 one-dollar bills."
He said the American Legion would apply for a county permit to operate the machines if the county commissioners adopt regulations. But he said it made little sense that state and county law place more restrictions on nonprofits than on private companies such as the Rod 'N' Reel.
Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) said the board will take up the committee's recommendations in the coming weeks. Demedis said the commissioners are not required to accept the recommendations and can continue to prohibit instant bingo machines for nonprofits if they wish.
Hale said he has not seen the committee's recommendations and has not taken any position on the issue.