by John Zippert,
Photo includes Sheriff Benison, Jasma Colvin, Alicia Jordan, Jalessa Jones and CEO Elmore Patterson shown providing a check for $30,000. Shown below meeting held at the Branch Heights Center on Bingo with represenatives Bobby Singleton and AJ McCampbell.
The past week saw many developments related to the future of electronic bingo in Greene County.
Eutaw Councilman Joe Lee Powell and County Commissioner Corey Cockrell convened a meeting at the Branch Heights Community Center for the county’s legislative delegation to explain their efforts to assist Greene County.
Senator Bobby Singleton and Representatives Artis McCampbell and Ralph Howard were present to explain their efforts to pass SB 340 to amend Greene County’s Amendment 743 to strengthen the legal basis for electronic bingo in the county.
SB 340 also allowed electronic bingo at only one site in the county, which is Greenetrack, since it is already approved for pari-mutuel gambling on greyhound dogs and horses. The bill also would have changed the formula for distribution of bingo funds to county agencies and charities. It also removed the regulation of bingo from the exclusive control of the Sheriff to a five member Greene County Gaming Commission.
The proposed bill included a provision that three-quarters of one percent of the annual gross revenues of electronic bingo would be paid to the Greene County Housing Authority. Based on projected annual gross revenues of $50 million, the Housing Authority would receive approximately $375,000 per year. “ Under our plan, the Housing Authority could use these revenues to finance a bond issue that would repair the roads and streets in Branch Heights, ” said McCampbell. Bobby Singleton said, “ Our goal was to legally protect bingo in Greene County and we needed support from the Republican super-majority in the Legislature to get this done. Some Republicans do not want to vote for any form of gambling; others want to reduce the spread of gambling; and some legislators want to help the Native Americans that have bingo in their casinos.”
“We felt we had the 21 votes needed to pass our amendment in the Senate. We hoped we had all eight Democratic Senators and even changed the bill to accommodate some of their concerns. We had some Republicans who promised that if we got 19 or 20 votes they would vote with us, to put us over the top.
“We were very disappointed that we only got 17 votes because two Democrats, who are African-American, Senators Hank Sanders of Selma and Vivian Figures, voted against the bill which effectively killed our chance to pass it,” said Singleton.
Singleton said, “ I know the rules of the Senate and worked hard with my personal relationships to get enough support to pass it. We changed it to accommodate various concerns by Senator Sanders and others. We tried to calm the opposition of the Native Americans. We included a 4% state tax to provide revenues for the state. We did everything we could but we needed a few more votes.”
A lady in the audience was very concerned that the proposed bill would result in the closure of the other three bingo parlors and put their employees out of work. Singleton responded that this was done to insure the legal survival of bingo and show that the growth of bingo establishments would be curtailed and concentrated in one place. “ We hoped that most of the people, who may have lost their jobs, would be hired by Greenetrack, who would need more employees. In the past, Greenetrack had 400 to 500 employees making living wages with a good benefits package.”
Hodges Smith, speaking on behalf of the 14 volunteer fire departments in the county said, “From 2003 to 2011, when bingo was exclusively at Greenetrack, $2,9 million was provided to the Greene County Firefighters, since 2011, we have received $259,000 from Greenetrack and $8,208.24 from the other bingo places combined. The Firefighters, E-911 and Woman-to-Woman are the three charities supported by Greenetrack, in addition to funds that the four bingo establishments pay to the Sheriff for distribution to county agencies, municipal governments and the school system.
Iris Sermon of E-911 said, “We can see what is happening because we are not united. The state Legislature may sponsor a lottery and cut out bingo all together. E-911 has been assisted by Greenetrack when the county government and other agencies could not support our critical services.”
Luther “Nat” Winn, CEO of Greenetrack came into the meeting late. He challenged the group,” Tell me who owns the other bingo establishments in Greene County. We do not know who owns them. We do know who owns Greenetrack and they are all people from Greene County. We have let other people come in and take advantage of Amendment 743 but they are not helping to protect it. We pay a cashier $41,000 a year, plus benefits, but we never hear what the others pay their employees. They are not paying living wages and supporting charities outside of Greene County. Greenetrack used to give college scholarships to every Greene County graduate. We cannot do this any more because the bingo revenues are scattered.”
John Zippert, a member of the Greene County Health System Board, reported that members of the GCHS Board had met with Sheriff Benison and asked that he increase the $200 per bingo machine fee by $25 a month and give those funds to help keep the Hospital and Nursing Home open providing services to Greene County residents. The Sheriff said he would consider this request and review it with the four bingo operators. He made an immediate grant of $30,000 to help the GCHS meets its current critical financial situation.
Mr. Winn said, “I’m not sure Greenetrack, under the current state of affairs, could afford an increase in the monthly fee and be able to pay its other expenses.” Winn also made no clear declaration that he would employ people from the other bingo businesses if this bill were ever passed restoring Greenetrack’s exclusive rights to operate electronic bingo in Greene County.
In response to a question from Val Goodson of Citizens to Make Greene County Better about the future of bingo legislation, Singleton said, “We were trying to do the right thing for Greene County. We can introduce the bill again in a Special Session of the Legislature, but the people of Greene County need to be behind it and help us push it through.”