Sheriff Jonathan Benison meets with GCHS Board; commits to change ‘bingo rules’ to provide major support to save hospital

By: John Zippert,
Co-Publisher and Chair of GCHS Board of Directors

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The Board of Directors of the Greene County Health System (GCHS) Board met with Sheriff Jonathan Benison and his electronic bingo staff twice in the past three weeks, on August 25 and September 12, 2017 to urge him to take action to support the hospital, which is in danger of closing due to financial problems.
The GCHS Board submitted a letter to Sheriff Benison on August 30, 2017 placing in writing its suggestions to help the health care system in Greene County.
These suggestions included: collection of a 4% tax imposed on bingo machine operators, in June 2016, which has never been enforced or collected; raising the per machine fee, paid by bingo operators from $200 to $225 and giving those proceeds to support the GCHS on a monthly basis, and other steps to help the hospital become more financially self sufficient.
In the meeting, this week on September 12, 2017, Sheriff Jonathan Benison and his attorney Flint Liddon and bingo staff announced that he was going to change Section 4 of the electronic bingo rules to provide an additional $25 assessment, on all bingo machines, in all five bingo establishments, in Greene County, with the funds going to the Greene County Health System to support the hospital, nursing home, physicians clinic and other services.
This change will be instituted effective November 1, 2017 to allow the bingo establishments time to adjust their budgets and operations.

Currently, based on data provided by the Sheriff and his staff, there are 2,032 bingo machines at the five bingo establishments in Greene County which means that based on current numbers, the GCHS would receive $50,800 per month from the proceeds of this rule change. The Sheriff said that he thought that the number of bingo machines in the county would hold steady at around 2,000 or above.
This means that the GCHS could expect to receive $600,000 per year in support from electronic bingo in the county sanctioned under Constitutional Amendment 743.
Rosemarie Edwards, a Board member from the Boligee area, said, “I want to thank the Sheriff for his decision to increase the fee on each bingo machine by $25. This will help to keep the hospital open and provide needed medical services for Greene County residents. I hope people in the community will support the Sheriff in his new bingo rules.”
Eddie Austin, Board member from the Forkland area, indicated, “I know of a person, within the last week, whose life was saved and stabilized by the Greene County Hospital Emergency Room. We all need our hospital to stay open and offer quality services. I commend the Sheriff for responding to our pleas for support.”
Pinnia Hines, Board member from Eutaw and former employee said, “With the commitment from the Sheriff to change bingo rules and provide substantial support for the hospital, nursing home and associated services, we will have certainty and stability to keep the facilities open. I thank the Sheriff for his decisions and I urge the community to support and unify behind these necessary changes.”
In response to a question from the Board, about what the Sheriff will do if the bingo operators do not agree to and comply with his per machine fee rules changes, Sheriff Benison said, “ I hope they will agree but if they don’t, I will have no choice but to enforce the rules and close down those who do not pay the funds to support the hospital.” Hank McWhorter, the Sheriff’s Bingo Enforcement Officer pulled out some large pre-printed stickers, which would be attached to the doors of those bingo establishments that did not comply with the new rules changes.
Attorney Liddon stated, “We do not really know how much money is passing through these bingo machines but we are sure it is enough to meet the conditions of these rule changes. We know the operators will not like these changes and may cry out that they are too expensive, but the Sheriff is determined to go forward to make these changes to assist the hospital.”
John Zippert, Chair of the GCHS Board, said, “We welcome and support the Sheriff’s decision to raise the per machine fee by $25 to assist the Greene County Health System. This infusion of $50,000 a month will be a significant and substantial help to the facility to meet its deficit of $100,000 per month. Our monthly deficit is roughly equal to the ‘uncompensated care’ we provide to low-income people from Greene County each month.
“The Board and the people of Greene County we represent, thank the Sheriff for his rule change and support for the GCHS. The Board will work with the people to find the rest of the revenues and savings to erase the deficit. More Greene County people must use the GCHS facilities and services; we must fill the 20 vacant beds in our nursing home; we must fully utilize the three doctors and two nurse practitioners in the health clinic; we must fully utilize all the services of GCHS.
“Our Board will also seek support and contributions from other public and private sources, including the Greene County Commission, the State of Alabama, Medicare, Medicaid, private foundation grants and other support. We will also work for better state and national health policies which will treat rural people and facilities fairly and recognize our contribution to the nation’s health care status and the well-being of our people.”

Sheriff Joe Benison meets with Hospital Board to discuss bingo funds

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L to R: GCHS Board members: Margaret Bir, Sheriff Benison, Lucy Spann, Elmore Patterson, Jasmine Smith, Pinnia Hines, Shirley Edwards and Rosemary Edwards. Not shown are Eddie Austin and John Zippert who also attended the meeting.

Greene County Sheriff Jonathan “Joe” Benison, together with his executive assistant and bingo clerks, met with the Greene County Health System (GCHS) Board of Directors as part of their regular meeting on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss with the Board their concerns over the status of payments from electronic bingo parlors to the GCHS, which operates the hospital, nursing home, physicians clinic and home health services.
On June 2, 2016, Sheriff Benison adopted a new rule for bingo which stipulated that the Greene County Hospital was to receive a fee of 4% of the amount paid to vendors, who provide bingo machines, to be paid to the hospital for providing health care services to the residents of Greene County.

The Sheriff adopted this rule change as a way to share some of the revenues generated by electronic bingo, under Alabama Constitutional Amendment 743, with the Greene County Health Care System.
Based upon estimates from the bingo clerks, Elmore Patterson, CEO of the Greene County Health System projected receiving $3,500 per month from each of the four operating bingo parlors as of June 2016. This would total $14,000 per month or $168,000 per year.

The GCHS Board informed the Sheriff that since adoption of the rule in June 2016, the health facilities have not received these 4% fees from the vendors. The GCHS has received an average of $5,133 per month for the hospital and $ 1,104 per month for the residential care center (nursing home). These averages include a one-time payment of $30,000 from Greenetrack and smaller donations as a sub-charity from all of the bingo operation. The Anchor Group, the charity operating the River’s Edge Bingo facility is the only operation that has been paying the 4% vendors fee under the Sheriff’s rules.
Sheriff Benison said that he understood the Greene County Health System’s concerns with the shortfall in the 4% vendors fee.
He said that he wanted to discuss this with the bingo operators, including the Palace Bingo, a new electronic bingo hall at the Knoxville Exit on Interstate 20/59. He said that after he consults with the bingo operators that he and his clerks would report back to the GCHS Board of Directors.
Elmore Patterson thanked the Sheriff for attending the meeting and said, “Health care is critical to Greene County. The GCHS is providing quality health care to residents of Greene County and surrounding areas. I just reported to the Board that we had an overall operating loss of $538,000 for the first six months of this fiscal year, which began October 1, 2016. This loss matches the half a million dollars of uncompensated care that the GCHS provided to Greene County citizens, during the same time period, with limited incomes who lack insurance or other health care payers. We are looking to electronic bingo, the county government and others sources to help us cover our deficit which basically comes from serving the people of our county who are poor and not covered by any health insurance.”
All of the GCHS Board members also thanked the Sheriff for coming and listening to the concerns of the community. The members said they hoped to hear some positive response from the bingo establishments and the Sheriff in the coming weeks.

Greene County Commission ratifies agreement with Sheriff on budget

The Greene County Commission held a special called meeting on Thursday, December 29 at 4:30 PM to ratify an agreement to approve the Sheriff and Jail Budget based on the Sheriff’s Department collecting $5 per bingo machine in fees from each bingo operator retroactive to February 2016.
County Attorney Hank Sanders reported on an agreement that he had worked out with Sheriff Benison, in the presence of the special judge handling the on-going dispute between the Sheriff and the Commission over the budget, personnel, repairs to the jail and the Sheriff’s contribution from bingo funds to the Commission’s operating account.

The Commission adopted the following motion, “Be it resolved, that the Sheriff and Jail Budget for Greene County be based on the FY 2013-14 budget amount; and based on the installation of additional security cameras in the amount of $7,687; and based upon the Sheriff certifying that notice was given to the bingo operators and charities to pay the additional $5 per machine retroactive back to February 2016.”The Sheriff and Jail Budget for 2013 and 14 was $1,623,177. The retroactive payment at $5 per machine for the eleven months, since the agreement in February 2016, is estimated to be $70,000 .
The Commissioners questioned Attorney Sanders before their vote as to how the Sheriff was going to pay the retroactive amount. Sanders said that the amount would likely not be paid in a lump sum but in periodic payments over time. He said that a timetable was not specified but that the Judge would be monitoring the agreement to be sure both sides complied with their obligations under the agreement

Sheriff Benison provides $30,000 to Greene County Hospital Greene Co. electronic bingo bill defeated in Alabama Senate; Meeting in Branch Heights to explain status of bill and next steps

News Analysis
by John Zippert,
Co-Publisher

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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.

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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.”