Bloomington aldermen plan to vote next week on a proposal to extend the city’s yearlong moratorium on allowing new video gambling machines in the city.
At a Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday, the council expressed interest in exploring other options to curtail the expansion of the machines. The council plans to discuss those options at its March 11 meeting.
Alderman Joni Painter pushed for the moratorium last year and now wants it extended indefinitely. She said the near $800,000 windfall the city received in tax revenue from the gambling machines last year is negated by the costs to regulate the establishments and the “social costs they incur.”
“It’s not the cash cow we were promised,” Painter said. “As a matter of fact, it’s a revenue drain.”
The city hosted 258 video gambling terminals in 57 licensed establishments last year. Players spent $62.9 million on the machines and gained $47 million in winnings. Bloomington received $795,000 of the $15.9 million in net profit.
Those numbers are all higher than 2017 totals, despite the moratorium on new machines being issued on March 1.
Painter said the gaming machines are also draining revenue for schools because casinos, which have lost substantial market share to video gaming, pay a higher portion of their proceeds to education.
She acknowledged many businesses have come to rely on the revenue the machines generate.
“We must find a better way to grow and enhance our economy because this is just a loser,” Painter said.
Hope Terronez, a student at Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing, urged aldermen to extend the moratorium. She said gaming manufacturers are targeting younger players with skill-based games to get them hooked.
She added many of the machines are located in bars and other alcohol establishments, thereby increasing the time they can spend playing and the increasing the likelihood of financial risks.
“One of the biggest issues with this gambling addiction is Bloomington already has issues with availability of mental health resources, so if we do allow this to go through and more addiction does become prevalent they are not going to have as many resources to go to for treatment,” Terronez said.
Alderman Amelia Buragas suggested the city look at other ways to limit video gambling aside from an all-out ban on new licenses, such as stricter zoning rules, a cap on the number of machines or higher fees.
“I’m not sure what’s most effective, but I’m curious to find out because I’d like to know more what is the scope of the issue we are looking at so we can make sure whatever action we take accomplishes what we would like to see accomplished,” Buragas said.
During the city budget discussion, City Manager Tim Gleason had suggested the city consider assessing a $500 fee for each video gaming terminal. That would equate to about $125,000 per year for city coffers.
He also raised the idea of instituting a four-cent increase in the gas tax to pay for more infrastructure work. He said the city has $5 million budgeted for roadwork next year, but Public Works Director Jim Karch said the city needs at least $6 million for road maintenance.
“It’s not a recommendation on my part, but I do feel it’s my responsibility to throw out the menu of revenue options,” Gleason said.
The city council balked at raising the gas tax last year.
Alderman Karen Schmidt said she is leery of raising the tax at a time when the Illinois legislature might be considering similar action.
“I’m worried about what Springfield is going to do and do we have any sense for what balls might be in the air there and how we could end up with something where people really are driving around Bloomington and potentially Normal,” Schmidt said.
Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe said such an increase might be more palatable if the city ties the revenue to specific road projects.
“Nobody likes to increase taxes, but I think there may be some interest on the part of the public if they see some clear return on the investment,” Mwilambwe said.
City finance director Scott Rathbun is scheduled to formally present the city’s annual budget proposal on Feb. 25. Gleason said the he intends to schedule an April 8 vote. The city’s next budget year begins May 1.
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