Arundel to decide how to split the proceeds from new casino

Absent the colorful facade yet to come, the slots casino at Arundel Mills looks from the outside like a giant parking garage, but thousands of gambling machines on the first floor will soon be lighting up the day and night. The doors are set to open in June, and this year Anne Arundel County can begin slicing up its share of the expected millions.

The estimate now is $15 million for Anne Arundel during the first 12 months. That's how much County ExecutiveJohn R. Leopoldput into his proposed budget, calling the Maryland Live Casino "the largest single new source of revenue."

Final decisions on how to spend that money, along with the rest of Leopold's $1.2 billion proposal for operating expenses and $1 billion in capital projects, will be made by the County Council this spring. A 15-member committee established under the state slots law has made recommendations for the $15 million, although its first effort is already taking heat from some community group members who feel they were shut out of the process.

Ernest "Rusty" Bristow, a member of the Local Development Council — the committee of business people, residents, state lawmakers and a casino representative that recommends how to use the casino money — said the panel had to "act a little bit quicker than you would like to" but did its job.

"We accomplished everything that needed to get done," said Bristow, who is also treasurer of the Harman Civic Association. He said committee recommendations follow the community's chief concern about the new casino: public safety.

The committee recommended unanimously that $10.3 of the $15 million — more than two-thirds — be spent on police and fire protection. That figure includes $3.5 million for hiring and equipping 15 new police officers to work out of the Arundel Mills substation, meaning that post would be staffed 24 hours a day, said John Hammond, the county's chief administrative officer.

The sum also includes $6.8 million for the Fire Department, including $800,000 for a new ambulance unit and nine firefighters at the Harmans-Dorsey Station, the first responder for emergencies at Arundel Mills, Bristow said. The remaining $6 million is to continue existing service at Harmans-Dorsey and stations in Jessup and Severn that also serve the Arundel Mills area.

The other $4.7 million is devoted to transportation, education, job training and the local public library, including $2 million to expand programs in technology, cybersecurity and culinary arts at the Anne Arundel Community College campus at Arundel Mills. The panel proposes $1.6 million for transportation: $600,000 for expanded Central Maryland Transit bus service and $1 million for road resurfacing and reconstruction.

Committee members say there could be adjustments during the year, depending on need, and they agree that the $15 million is a rough figure.

"We believe that's a conservative estimate," said committee member Claire Louder, the president and CEO of the West County Chamber of Commerce. She acknowledged, however, that if at some point the Maryland General Assembly approves a sixth casino location inPrince George's County, the outlook will change considerably.

Leopold, a Republican, has been pressing the county's Assembly delegation to oppose that sixth casino, which is backed by Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties.

"There's no question that would cut into the Anne Arundel casino's market. The whole point is jobs and revenue, both of which would be threatened by an additional site," Leopold said this week.

Leopold appointed the 15 committee members in consultation with the County Council, but the process was held up as the council debated how to fill a vacancy left by former Councilman Daryl D. Jones, the Democrat who represented the Arundel Mills area. In January, he began serving five months in federal prison for failing to file personal and business tax returns.

Leopold said the council asked him to hold up the committee appointments until Jones' successor was named. Peter I. Smith, a Marine reservist who works at Fort Meade, was chosen March 20 to fill the seat, and the Local Development Council met for the first time on March 22 — just over three weeks before Leopold presented his budget message to the council April 16.

While the committee includes seven community members, there was no time to conduct hearings with community groups. Louder said "we would expect to have much more community input in future years."

The lack of consultation was not lost on at least two members of community groups in the Arundel Mills area. Douglas Perry, immediate past president of the Villages of Dorchester Homeowners Association, and Christopher Salmi, vice president of the Provinces Community Association, both said the committee did a poor job of keeping the community informed.

They both said they had not had a chance to study the recommendations, and their reactions were mixed.

Perry said the money to sustain existing staffing at three fire stations sounded like what he and others feared: that the casino money would be used to "fill gaps" left by budget cuts elsewhere.

"It kind of goes in line with what we suspected; it's a bit of a shell game," said Perry.

Hammond disputed that interpretation, saying the $15 million was part of a "pool of money" and was not being used to make up for service cuts.

Perry said he wanted to see some money devoted to new-school construction to relieve school overcrowding in the area, the county's fastest-growing section.

"If the community had been consulted, we would have had that high on the list," said Perry. "But we weren't asked."

Salmi said he was happy to hear about the proposal to hire more police at Arundel Mills and add the ambulance at Harmans-Dorsey, but he remained skeptical. The county, he said, has promised a fully staffed police substation at Arundel Mills for some time.

"I would like to withhold my judgment until I see some execution," Salmi said.

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