Casinos decline, remain a winning hand for local governments

2013-12-21T23:50:00Z 2013-12-23T06:39:06Z Casinos decline, remain a winning hand for local governmentsBill Dolan and Marc Chase The Times
December 21, 2013 11:50 pm  • 

Lake County government bodies have walked away from the tables with $1.1 billion since the county's four casinos opened 17 years ago.

That is the total of admissions and wagering taxes along with other revenues the riverboats have paid local government based on each customer who enters their glittering doors.

The dollars have purchased a lot of brick and mortar, including Gary's $45 million Steel Yard baseball stadium, tens of millions for the total rebuilding of about 60 percent of Hammond's roads and $12 million for new windows and other upgrades to make county government buildings more energy-efficient.

The casino revenues also have put a fleet of government vehicles on the street and fuel in their tanks, have sustained an army of consultants and paid for local government employees' health benefits.

Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, which respectively host Majestic Star, Horseshoe and Ameristar Casinos, have pocketed about three quarters of this jackpot.

Lake County, municipal governments and the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority have received the rest.

The American Gaming Association's website states Indiana's casinos raked in at least $2.6 billion last year from its customers and paid out state and local taxes totaling more than $806 million.

All of Indiana's riverboats generate the fourth-largest source of state government funds, behind sales, income and gasoline taxes, according to state records.

Lake County officials say the share has improved the quality of life of all region residents from promoting job-creating economic development to repairing crumbling sewers. They also have showered gaming funds on churches, sports organizations and even a college tuition program in Hammond.

Golden era of lavish casino spending was short

If gaming funds seemed like a luxury at the beginning, they became a necessity as government revenues were lost to state-mandated property tax cuts and the economic downturn.

"In the past, before I came, the city was relying on shoring up its general fund," East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said.

The state also threw up further limits, diverted nearly $84 million since 2006 from the eager hands of elected local officials to about 30,000 taxpayers in the form of property tax reductions.

The General Assembly skimmed another $14 million a year to give to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, a state-created body that invests money in Northwest Indiana's lakefront, the Gary/Chicago International Airport and other big-ticket items.

Recent tax break for riverboats have further reduced the wagering tax pot for Lake County and other casino counties.

Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of state government and publisher of Indiana Gaming Insight, said officials can only expect further threats to their casino largesse, as Hoosier discretionary income shrinks and competitive pressure grows from neighboring state casinos, the state lottery, and bars and taverns lobbying for video gaming.

"It's not a steady source of income that you can count on," Lake County Council President Ted Bilski said.

"We have had to put more casino money into making sure our bills are paid. That is something we need to get away from. It should be reserved for capital projects."

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