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Rolling the dice

Coal City letting voters decide on video gambling

COAL CITY, Ill. — As Coal City voters cast their ballots for local, state and national elected officials Nov. 6, they'll also face a question that seeks their opinion on whether video gambling machines should be allowed in some village establishments with liquor licenses.

The video gambling referendum is the result of discussion over the course of a series of village board meetings held over the summer where village leaders ultimately decided to bring the question before voters in a non-binding ballot question.

Mayor Neal Nelson said the board will uphold whatever voters decide.

"We made a decision as a board that we are going to follow the wishes of our public," he said. "The majority vote wins — whether it's a 'yes' or a 'no.'"

According to prior reports, the machines were made legal when state legislators approved the Video Gaming Act in 2009, although the implementation of it has stalled because of following legal battles that took the issue to the state Supreme Court.

The question of whether to approve it in Coal City, which had no prior video gambling restrictions in its code, came as the Illinois Gaming Board (IGB) opened up its license application process. Under the law, up to five machines may be placed in IGB-licensed establishments with licenses to serve alcohol, fraternal and veterans establishments, and truck stops.

In July, on a split vote, trustees voted to prohibit gambling in the interim before the referendum. The decision has drawn opposition and support from village leaders, as well as indifference.

Nelson is one leader who has emerged on the opposing side of the referendum. He believes the expansion of gambling in Illinois is not the answer to the state's need for revenue.

"One thing is for sure — gambling does not solve problems, gambling creates problems," he said. "If gambling solved problems, we'd have all our problems solved in the state of Illinois, wouldn't we?"

He also said that, in a small community, there is a limited amount of personal income to support the local economy.

"It's a form of entertainment that some people can't handle and instead of money going to food and gas and mortgage payments, it's going into the video poker machine, and I think it impacts our local economy," he said. "Instead of going into Berkot's and BP Amoco, it's going into that poker machine."

He said the lack of local control has also played a role in his approach to the issue. In meetings, Nelson has expressed an interest in keeping the machines confined to bars, and out of area restaurants, which has been determined by the village's attorney as a move that could result in a lawsuit against the village.

"We never expected by granting that liquor license that were going to see an expansion of video gaming in the restaurants," he said. "We have families going to these restaurants, how is that going to be controlled? ... It's kind of an unknown, and it's kind of scary."

Babe's Tap owner Marvin Perino has thrown his support behind having video gambling in Coal City, from discussing it with other residents he bumps into, having signs printed up, and engaging with patrons through the tavern's Facebook page.

"I do believe in it because it's a win for everybody involved," he said. "It's good for me as a business person ... it's good for our business, it's good for our employees, it's good for the charitable donations we're able to (make to local charities) and it's also good for the village."

Perino said he thinks the gaming law will help businesses like his, who have been struggling from past regulations like smoking bans. He argued that having the machines will bring people who play them both to Coal City to spend their money, as well as to buy food and drink while they're there, and also that the village could benefit from the cut of the proceeds that is not earmarked for any specific cause.

According to the IGB, the state will receive 30 percent of the net terminal income coming from each video gaming terminal, with 5 percent of that going to local governments. Remaining income also will go to the terminal operator and location and the Scientific Games, the company which builds and maintains the terminal's Central Communications System.

Perino also said not approving the measure could drive profits to surrounding communities that have approved video gambling.

"If Coal City doesn't allow it, these people will play these machines anyway," he said, going to area cities that have approved it, like Morris or Diamond. "Coal City will lose that revenue, the gaming revenue and the revenue from them eating and drinking."

He's aware that there is moral opposition to the referendum, but said he doesn't feel morality should be governed by the village.

"I know our mayor in Coal City is against it, and I believe any moral issues should not be legislated," he said.

He pointed out that there are rules in place for establishments like his — the machines have to be within sight of an employee over 21 and the establishment is also responsible under the law to ensure intoxicated individuals are not playing them.

"I know there's addiction, but I know there is help out there for that," he said.

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