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Perryville commissioners approve casino local impact funds agreement

BY MARISSA GALLO, mgallo@theaegis.com

11:10 PM EDT, October 18, 2011

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A local impact funds agreement between the town and Cecil County, as to how revenue from Hollywood Casino Perryville will be divided, was approved Tuesday night by the Perryville Board of Commissioners during a special session, but not without heated discussion before hand.

Only one commissioner voted against approving the agreement that has been in the works since before the Hollywood Casino in Perryville opened in September 2010.

The agreement, which decides how much money and for how long each entity receives from casino, has been a long source of contention between the town and county, with back and forth discussions between both sides — and the town's board, as well — and threats of lawsuits.

The agreement that the majority of the board approved will have the local impact funds split 65-35, to the county and town, respectively, and will be for 15 years with renegotiations to begin after 13 years. If the two sides can't come to an agreement, an economic impact study will be done on the town and county. If each still can't reach an agreement, the two will seek mediation. If all else fails, there will be arbitration, during which all money, designated to both the county and town, will be put into an escrow account where neither will receive funds until an agreement is decided upon.

Cecil County commissioners approved a draft of the agreement Oct. 4, which was discussed at length with Perryville's board during a public meeting at the end of September. The same version of the agreement was the one the town's commissioners ultimately approved. The town will receive its 35 percent of the funds in three business days, as was said in the agreement.

Before moving to the special session, Commissioner Michael Dawson expressed his concern with "transparency and openness of government" when it came to the timing of the special meeting, which he has brought up in past meetings.

Citing Mayor Jim Eberhardt during the public meeting Sept. 27, Dawson said there would be further discussion on the agreement.

"I don't remember having further discussion on deliberation on this," he said, adding the board "didn't even wait the extra two weeks for the town meeting." Dawson then asked the board to postpone the meeting to discuss the agreement at a later date in front of the public.

Eberhardt responded that the opportunity for further discussion and debate was during Tuesday's special meeting, which was open to the public, before the board voted. He also reminded Dawson that during the same September meeting he told the public that he would "schedule that vote at the earliest possible time," which was that night.

Dawson again asked if it was too much to wait two more weeks to vote on the agreement, to which Eberhardt replied that the board had been dealing with this issue for quite some time and has given the public ample opportunity to voice their opinions during previous meetings. The public, Eberhardt said, overwhelmingly asked the board, "What's taking so long?"

Commissioner Michelle Linkey later commented that the meeting had been advertised on the town's web site, as well as several newspapers. Eberhardt added that nothing had been changed since the agreement was discussed during September's public meeting, where residents were allowed to view the draft, comment and ask questions.

It was then brought up by Dawson that the board hadn't met with the town's attorney, Frank Sussman, since July 5. Dawson asked Sussman if he had the information available to pursue a lawsuit against the county. Sussman said he had received Freedom of Information act documents, which the board requested while considering filing a lawsuit, but had not fully reviewed or put the information together for review because the county and town re-entered negotiations for the agreement.

Sussman, when asked why he did not proceed with reviewing the material, said, "It would've been an unwise use of town resources" to continue while re-negotiations were happening.

When Dawson asked if he could read a passage from a previous closed session, the board decided to adjourn to a closed session to discuss matters pertaining to legal counsel.

After the special meeting was re-adjourned, Dawson made a motion to approve an agreement with no time frame as to when it would end, as well as pursue a lawsuit against the county. No one seconded his motion.

Linkey then made a motion to approve the agreement as written and "stop all pursuit of any legal action in regard to the funds." Sussman clarified that the town could take legal action if the county was in breach of the contract. Linkey then amended her motion to include that fact. Commissioner Alan Fox seconded the motion.

Dawson wanted to amend Linkey's motion to approve the agreement to add Route 272 as the dividing line between town and county limits, as well as remain in effect for the duration of the agreement.

"I'm not sure how that impacts this agreement one way or the other," Eberhardt responded. Dawson said he could possibly see the line being moved in the future "to include the entire county." He said he was concerned about the number of organizations that would want a part of the impact funds if the dividing line wasn't clear. Dawson's motion was not seconded and died.

He then wanted to add a second amendment to include a ceiling/basement figure for the town's share, with the percentage never going below 20 percent, but never exceeding 50 percent. This motion, too, was not seconded. Dawson then commented that he had "no more amendments, but I will not be voting on this agreement."

"We're about to lose something tonight that we'll never get back," he said. Dawson then accused Eberhardt of "giving up on the people of Perryville" by "giving into" the county's negotiations. Eberhardt commented that this entire process began in 2008 and has been a long, difficult road just to reach that point.

The board approved the agreement with Dawson the lone commissioner to oppose it.