To game or not to game?

By on August 23, 2012

by Cheryl Borrowdale
SUGAR GROVE—So many residents packed Tuesday’s Village Board meeting to debate whether the village should ban video gaming that additional chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd.

The issue, which was brought up two weeks ago by the Sugar Grove American Legion’s application to install five video gaming machines, generated more than an hour of public comments from community members and debate among board members. Proponents argued that gaming was a revenue generator in a weak economy and would draw business to Sugar Grove, while opponents argued that gaming would be detrimental to the community and would not generate the predicted revenues.

Cliff Barker, chaplain for the Sons of the American Legion, spoke on behalf of the organization, arguing that video gaming would improve the health of groups like the Legion, and that the revenue generated would be used to expand the scholarships and volunteer work the Legion does within the community.

“The state of Illinois passed the Video Gaming Act in 2009 with fraternal and veteran’s organizations like the Legion in mind,” Barker said. “Our members are active in the Corn Boil, Veterans Park, volunteering. We sponsor Little League and softball leagues, we contribute toward trips to (Washington) D.C. for Kaneland students; we have a new Joe Testin Scholarship. We’d like to do more.”

Barker also noted that if Sugar Grove opts out, residents might go to other communities to gamble, which would harm local businesses.

“It may result in the loss of a dinner at Fireside Grill or McDonald’s, the loss of a tank of gas at BP,” he said. “The Legion intends to spend as much of its revenue in Sugar Grove as possible.”

Jay Spoden of TAV Gaming, a Sugar Grove company that installed its first games at the Blackberry Bar & Grill in unincorporated Kane County yesterday, said that video gaming would generate jobs because the tax revenue goes into the state’s $31 billion capital fund, which pays for roads and infrastructure.

The machines would also be easy to maintain control over, he said. Only five machines would be allowed at a location under the state law, and only businesses with liquor-pouring licenses could apply. Since the village issues liquor licenses, Spoden said, it already has control over how many businesses could come into Sugar Grove and have video gaming. Technology also allowed close monitoring of the machines, he said.

“We know everything, how many spins per minute, how much money is being made, et cetera. Big Brother is watching,” he said. “If you get caught with somebody gambling under age 21, the first thing (the state gaming board) is going to do is pull your liquor license, not your gambling license, so people are going to be pretty careful if they can’t pour liquor for a year.”

Yet the economic arguments were not persuasive to many at the meeting. Keith Duff, a pastor at Village Bible Church, said he worried about the impact gaming might have on local families.

“As a church, we’re concerned about families and marriages, and those addicted to gambling have three times the divorce rate as those who aren’t,” Duff said. “Gambling is as much of a risk factor for domestic violence as alcohol use.”

Duff cited statistics showing that felony crimes and child abuse have also risen within three years of gaming being introduced in other areas.

“I certainly appreciate the organizations that could do more good with the revenues from (video gaming), but I’d rather raise money to do good in ways that don’t hurt people in the process,” Duff said. “It’s hard to raise money. We experience that as a church. But as much as I’d love to raise an extra couple hundred thousand dollars by putting gambling machines in the church, I don’t want to hurt families and children to do it.”

Father Bob Jones of St. Katharine Drexel Church agreed, saying that many Catholic churches have stopped offering Bingo nights because of the effects on parishioners.

“I know (video gaming) is just one form of gambling, but I see that communities have been hurt by legalized gambling. It hasn’t improved the community, it has brought in that element,” Jones said. “I encourage our board to really think long and hard about it. I think we should be very cautious. A number of communities have voted against this, and we should think, ‘why do communities not want this?’ I would be very hesitant to see it come into our communities.”

For Melissa Taylor, a Sugar Grove resident and Kane County Board member, the main concern was financial.

Under the Illinois Video Gaming Act, 30 percent of the money put into video gaming machines will be taxed, with a 25 percent going to the state and five percent to the municipality. Since the state collects the tax revenue and then distributes it to the municipalities, and since the state is billions of dollars behind in payments to schools, municipalities, Medicaid providers, vendors and workers, Taylor said there was no guarantee Sugar Grove would ever receive that money.

“While I have the utmost respect for the Legion and all the people in it, I’m not looking at the social part (of gaming), but the financial part,” Taylor said. “I don’t see the money coming back here. I see the state doing whatever it can to redirect it in another direction. That concerns me. Until I see the revenue coming in from other municipalities, I’ll believe (that the state will send tax revenues to the village) when I see it. If gaming comes here, how do you take it back out? I’d rather have someone else try it and see first. I’d like to see the proof in the pudding.”

Although the Legion understands the concerns others have about video gaming, Barker said, it’s a responsible organization and can be trusted to monitor the machines.

“The Legion is not willing to take chances,” Barker said. “If we handle this poorly, we put at risk our liquor license, our membership and our reputation. We have policies in place to make sure we do not fail. We’ve exceeded the state’s requirements for protections by having a separate room for the machines, constant video surveillance and placing the machines in the direct line of sight of the bartender. No one under 21 will be allowed in the room at any time, and we will continue our membership requirements currently in place so that we are better able to monitor things.”

Trustee David Paluch said that he had recently visited the Legion to see its setup, which relieved many of the concerns he had expressed at the previous board meeting, but that he still had concerns about the effect video gaming could have on the character of the village.

Though a number of local municipalities have opted out of gaming, including Elburn, Batavia, Campton Hills, West Chicago and Virgil, some nearby communities have decided to allow the machines. Paluch said that he spoke to someone on the Sandwich Village Board the day after the village decided not to opt out of video gaming, who told him that the village had been suddenly beset by a large number of applications for liquor licenses.

“They had seven bars where it was approved (because they had a liquor license),” Paluch said. “The next day, more applied. They had 16 or 17 try to come in. I don’t mind if a Chili’s or Applebee’s tried to come in here, but I don’t want to see places coming into Sugar Grove just to proliferate gaming.”

Trustee Rick Montalto agreed.

“I support the Legion in just about everything they do,” Montalto said. “But my concern is, if we allow the Legion now and then we try to opt out later, can we do that? We don’t want to regulate liquor licenses because places like Chili’s and Applebee’s serve alcohol. I don’t want to restrict those kinds of businesses.”

Other members of the board said they favored allowing gaming in Sugar Grove, noting that the state had already approved it and that state infrastructure funding was important.

“My concern is that we stand to lose state funding for our highways (because the capital bill will be underfunded) if we opt out of this,” trustee Robert Bohler said. “I have two nephews and a niece who are in the Armed Forces right now, and I believe that slot machines are more of a right than a moral issue. If we disallow these machines in our town, what rights are these kids fighting for? I don’t like to see bongs being sold in town, either, but we live in America, and this is a right people have.”

The debate prompted trustee Kevin Geary to suggest putting video gaming to a public referendum so community members could decide for themselves.

“I’m hearing from both ends, but I’m not hearing a clear answer as to what the public wants to do,” Geary said. “I did do a little bit of research, and we can still put a (non-binding) referendum on the ballot. I’m leaning in that direction so that we would really hear from all the public and not just the people here. I think an election would really give us a measure of what the people of Sugar Grove think. Whether it’s a yes or a no, I think that we should go along with what our citizens want on this.”

Both Paluch and trustee Thomas Renk agreed, saying that even though a referendum would be non-binding, they would pledge to vote according to the wishes of the community.

“I’m a big believer in majority government,” Paluch said. “I would be much more comfortable abiding by the wishes of our community.”

With just days remaining until a referendum would need to be added to the ballot, Village President Sean Michels said there was not enough time to do so, since the board could not vote on the issue until the next meeting, after the deadline for adding a referendum had passed.

Trustee Mari Johnson agreed, saying that a referendum was unnecessary.

“I can’t see us making (video gaming) illegal,” she said. “At $2 a game, to say that someone’s going to get addicted overnight, I don’t see that happening. I don’t think the Legion’s planning on getting rich quick off of this; I think they’re looking at it as an opportunity for patrons to remain in their establishment for longer than a couple of beers. I don’t think anybody who has a valid liquor license and a business is going to risk that over a few bucks generated by a machine. I don’t think it’s necessary to send this to a non-binding referendum. I’m fine with going ahead and allowing this.”

A straw vote on creating a referendum found the board split 3-3, with Renk, Geary and Bohler in favor and Johnson, Montalto and Paluch against. Michels broke the tie, saying he was against it.

“You don’t believe in democracy?” Renk asked.

“I believe that we’re elected to make decisions,” Michels said.

The board will vote on whether to opt out of video gaming at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 6 p.m.