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Slicing up the Slots Pie
Commentary by Bob Lassahn


While following the discussion of slots money for Ocean Pines on it becomes abundantly clear that there are people standing solidly on both sides of the issue. Some want to go for the gold, while others take a dim view of soliciting a percentage off the top for Ocean Pines of whatever dollars are designated for Worcester County.


Ocean Pines Association (OPA) Director Bill Rakow posted his view that designated percentages should be eliminated for both Ocean City and Berlin, allowing the county commissioners to dole out dollars according to some real world information rather than use the money as a pacifier for various and sundry communities. I couldn't agree more with his position. The mistake was made early on, when our elected representatives started to schmooze the populace of certain areas with promises of a payoff from the slots pot. The Ocean Pines leadership apparently missed the brass ring when Delegate Mathias reportedly contacted OPA General Manager Tom Olson and Police Chief Dave Massey for input and nobody took him up on the offer by providing some number they pulled out of the air.


Mr. Rakow astutely points out that the percentages pledged to Ocean City and Berlin are completely arbitrary. Realistically no one has a solid handle on the actual dollars involved and the numbers certainly aren't attached to any identifiable, negative impact. He says he doesn't want to play that game and questions what percentage OPA should ask for and what impact the amount will address. Two very valid questions, but apparently the percentage and the potential negative impacts weren't part of the equation when other entities were handed their slice of the slots pie.


Mr. Rakow readily admits that any attempt at eliminating the promised percentages for Ocean City and Berlin from the legislation would be folly. Political promises made and then retracted don't bode well for the elected officials involved. Thus reality dictates that the lump of slots cash Worcester County will receive is already diminished by 30 percent (20 percent to Ocean City and 10 percent to Berlin). The remainder will be distributed according to the will of the county commissioners. Mr. Rakow says he has great faith and confidence that the commissioners will treat Ocean Pines fairly and equitably as that process moves forward.


However, here is where the situation gets really convoluted. The legislation dictates slots money is to be allocated to address some measurable impact on the communities and an appointed oversight committee is supposed to advise the commissioners in this process. To my knowledge it isn't etched in stone that the commissioners are in any way bound by the committee's findings and recommendations. Further, the makeup of the committee will obviously be important and while it appears Ocean City has been guaranteed representation Ocean Pines has not been thusly blessed. And since we're talking measurable impact, what if it is discovered that the slots have provided some unforeseen economic boon, maybe like increased off season hotel room rentals and their associated room tax revenues? I haven't found anything that says the percentage should be reduced in the event of a positive impact.


I'm not taking a poke at Commissioner Judy Boggs or any sitting commissioner when I say that OPA relying on the good will of the commissioners has some pitfalls. Ms. Boggs may have all good intentions toward OPA, but she is only one of seven votes on that panel and getting something done requires three other votes. Hopefully the commissioners as a body will be looking out for the best interests of every county resident, but unfortunately turf could become a factor in the decision-making process. One need only look at history, in all levels of government, to understand it happens with great frequency. Additionally, who might be occupying those seven seats at the time the money starts flowing will be a factor. In spite of any pledge of fairness from or confidence in the sitting commissioners, no one knows if they will be around to ensure the pie gets sliced up equitably.


It has been hypothesized that OPA does not qualify for a percentage, as do Berlin or Ocean City, since it isn't a municipality. Ocean Pines resident Norm Katz, who urged the OPA board early on to seek consideration, succinctly points out that the legislature can do just about anything it wants with a stroke of the pen. Most importantly, one never knows until they try.


There is also a belief among some individuals, including some directors, that it isn't the place of the OPA board to take a position on this issue. I will offer that no matter how often or how strongly the directors argue they aren't "elected representatives" of Ocean Pines residents, they are viewed in that light by other elected officials. A view clearly demonstrated in numerous comments I have heard from county commissioners and most pointedly by Delegate Mathias' inquiries. If the OPA leadership doesn't take a position, it is therefore assumed OPA as a community doesn't have a position. Regardless of how many letters are fired off to the actual elected representatives from residents, it can be said "we haven't heard from Ocean Pines leaders."


To Mr. Rakow's open ended question, "What percentage should OPA ask for?" my answer is 15 percent. Exactly in the middle, as is Ocean Pines geographic proximity, of what has been pledged to Ocean City and Berlin. I arrived at that number with what I believe is the exact same amount of methodical thought and deliberation as went into the other percentages currently contained in the proposed legislation. None! As to what negative impact the funds would address, simply the same ones that impact our neighboring communities already designated to receive a percentage.


To his position of "I don't want to play that game" as regards seeking a percentage, I point out it is the game being played by the legislature. OPA can either sit on the sidelines of a very uneven playing field and hope for the best, or jump into the game late and take a shot at scoring. If it fails, at least OPA was trying.


Although we see things a bit differently I have the utmost respect for Bill Rakow's principles regarding this matter, to the point where I wish he had been among those writing the slots legislation in the first place.  Letting the county handle the whole slots enchilada might have eliminated some turf issues from the equation and all county residents would be a bit more likely to share equitably in the benefits.  At the very least communities wouldn't be divided up into those blessed by the hand of the legislature and those left to beg for scraps. Even as I advocate for OPA, I realize that places like Showell, Bishopville and Snow Hill all deserve consideration in the long haul.


Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and we now have what others, those perhaps a bit more politically inclined, thought would be the "right" way (or the expedient way) to do things.


It now isn't a matter of what is right, fair or any other platitude about the way things ought to be; it's about whether OPA might obtain some guarantee (as have Berlin and Ocean City) that it will receive due consideration for its proximity to the slots venue and potentially negative influences on the community, whatever they might happen to be. To at least some people in the community, this obviously has a level of importance and deserves to be explored.


The OPA board has voted to send a letter to Annapolis asking for equity. It is unknown exactly what their letter will ask on behalf of Ocean Pines, but it is a step in the right direction and at least the OPA leadership will demonstrate a position. Hopefully it will be a bit more succinct than "please treat us fairly."


Ocean Pines resident Roseann Bridgman has formed a grass roots group to lobby for equitable treatment as regards slots money for OPA. Her message, a suggested letter to elected representatives and a list of representatives with their addresses are provided.


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Uploaded: 12/10/2008