Statute may keep county's casino share out of reach; officials likely to seek change in law

by Tony Reaves Staff Writer Sun Journal Aug. 2, 2012

PARIS — Oxford County has received nearly $40,000 for the Oxford Casino's first three weeks of operation and is anticipating about $500,000 in the first year, but county taxpayers might not see that translate into relief on their tax bills.

As the money from casino revenues poured in, the county learned it might not be able to spend it. According to the law allowing the casino, several entities get percentages of slot machine and table game revenue. Oxford County gets 1 percent from each, but there's a catch.

According to the referendum, the money is “to pay for mitigation of costs resulting from gaming operations.” That clause, which acted as a selling point for the referendum in 2009, could serve as a restriction for county officials, who would rather see that money enter the general fund to offset taxes.

County Treasurer Roy Gedat said the problem is that the casino hasn't shown any sign of costing taxpayers more money. Calls for service have been minimal, and because Oxford has a police department and mutual aid agreements with neighboring towns, the casino hasn't added to the sheriff's office's workload.

County Administrator Scott Cole agreed.

“The Oxford Casino is a well-run operation," he said. "It wouldn't pass the straight-face test to say there's this tremendous impact on county services.”

Calls to 911 for police and medical services go through Oxford County dispatchers, but Cole said he couldn't imagine the dispatch center getting enough casino-related calls to require more staff. The county hasn't seen such associated costs, Cole said. “It's hard to predict the future, but right now I don't see any indicators."

The town of Oxford, which gets 2 percent of revenues, has no such restrictions. At a recent meeting, Town Manager Michael Chammings said money from the casino would go into the town's general fund, where it can provide tax relief and help fund town projects.

Chammings said in March that the county should have factored casino-revenue projections into the annual budget. Now, Cole said he's glad that didn't happen.

The money is going into a special account that won't be touched, for now. In 2012, the county's taxes increased by $300,000. Casino revenue might be enough to partially or completely wipe that out.

Gedat projected the county will get about $500,000 a year in casino revenues, although that figure might grow if the casino's expansion, expected to open this fall, adds significant revenue.

When the budget process begins, Oxford County residents will be expecting a break in taxes through casino revenue, he said. His office, and the commission, don't want to disappoint them.

Cole said the County Commission is looking at three options. One is to seek a change in the statute that would allow the county to add the money to the general fund. A second would be to simply allow the fund to grow and wait to see if the casino starts straining county services. The third would be to ask the attorney general for a legal opinion that would re-interpret the statute.

“There's a good chance that the county will seek legislation,” Cole said.