Calvert County's Board of Commissioners granted a Chesapeake Beach restaurant permission to operate bingo machines this week. It was just the second time that such a license has been issued.
The family-run restaurant, Traders, is owned by Jim Luckett and his son Gary. In presenting their case to the commissioners Tuesday, the Lucketts and their attorney said the business needs the machines to survive.
"We've had to deal with the rising cost of health insurance," said Jim Luckett, who said he employs 42 people, including 25 full-time workers. "We're looking for a way to offset the costs instead of raising our prices and driving our customers away."
Their attorney, Larry Lamson, called their proposal to operate 25 bingo machines "a minor request in terms of the modest number of machines."
Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown) opposed the application, called for a public hearing and wanted her fellow commissioners to consider creating county regulations before granting another bingo license in Calvert.
"The one place that has bingo machines already in Chesapeake Beach hasn't been regulated at all," she said. "I want to hear what the public has to say about this, give people a chance to weigh in."
No county rules exist to regulate bingo machines, county officials said.
Her motion to hold a public hearing died when none of the other three commissioners present supported it. Commissioner Linda L. Kelley (R-At Large) was absent for that part of the meeting.
Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby), who moved to approve the bingo application, said he understands the financial pressures the Lucketts face in keeping a small business going. Commissioner Wilson H. Parran (D-At Large) also supported the application.
"I can't think of why we couldn't grant this license when we already have one in Chesapeake Beach," Parran said.
Kelley arrived just before the vote, expressing strong opposition. "I'm just not going to support the proliferation of these machines," Kelley said.
The commissioners who had voiced their preferences on the license application were divided 2 to 2.
Board President David F. Hale (R-Owings) cast the tie-breaking vote, in favor of granting the license.
State law allows bingo machines in Chesapeake Beach and North Beach. Besides Calvert, the only other Maryland jurisdiction with legalized bingo machines is Anne Arundel County.
Until this week, the Rod 'N' Reel restaurant was the only place in the county that could legally operate bingo machines. In 2001 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the dozens of "instant bingo" machines used at the Rod 'N' Reel were not slot machines and therefore permissible under state gambling laws.
The instant bingo machines at the Rod 'N' Reel have spinning reels like slots but dispense paper tickets that have winning combinations on them.
At Tuesday's meeting, Shaw said she could not tell the difference between the bingo machines and slots.
"Technically, they're not slots, but they certainly look like one," she said. "Whenever there's gambling, there's opportunity for abuse."
The Lucketts said the "rapid bingo" machines they plan to operate are different from the "instant bingo" used at the Rod 'N' Reel. Rapid bingo machines use 24 numbers drawn at the beginning of the day. Players use multiple bingo boards that appear electronically on the machines' screens. Players win by matching some combination of the previously drawn numbers.
"It's the new wave, the new millennium," said Gary Luckett. "Bingo halls will eventually become like this electronic board."
State law requires the Rod 'N' Reel and Traders to pay an annual $5,000 fee to the county for their licenses. At the meeting, many commissioners, representing both sides of the debate, talked of revising the licensing fee system in coming months.
"As we get more machines, I think the taxpayers should benefit," Parran said.