Facing a 10 percent decline in sales, Maryland's new lottery director wants to boost player goodwill by restoring a toll-free phone number that gamblers can call to get the winning numbers.
Buddy W. Roogow, who took over the embattled state agency in the fall, said he hopes to have an 800 or local access telephone number in place by July 1.
The lottery used to offer toll-free phone lines but, in a controversial move, replaced them last summer with a 900 number. Calls to the new number cost 45 cents a minute.
Roogow said he would like to keep the 900 number in operation for out-of-state players and anyone who gets a busy signal on a toll-free line.
Lotto player Walter Holtz, a retired police officer who lives in Severna Park, is looking forward to the return of the free call. "It would be a very good idea," he said. "It's been too long coming.
"To charge you to call to find out if you won -- that's outrageous to me. And they wonder why people aren't playing numbers like they used to," said Holtz, who refuses to use the 900 number.
The lottery dropped the toll-free lines in August because they are costly and the 900 number offered the agency a chance to make a profit, a spokesman had said.
But hundreds of players like Holtz complained, and a state senator called the 900 number "tacky."
Almost three weeks after abolishing the free lines, the lottery switched to a new computer contractor, Automated Wagering International of Atlanta, whose start-up glitches further irritated many players.
Meanwhile, lottery sales continued to plummet. Sales from July to Dec. 1 declined 10 percent over the same time last year, Roogow said.
The Board of Revenue Estimates expects lottery revenues to be $49 million below original projections during the current budget year, which runs through June 30.
Roogow said the lottery itself is projecting a $31 million revenue shortage, a smaller drop than the board is expecting. "I believe we'll do better in the second half of the fiscal year," he said.
The lottery is state government's third-largest source of general fund revenues, behind income taxes and sales taxes. It was expected to contribute $460 million to the $14.8 billion budget this fiscal year.
Roogow's plan to return to a toll-free phone number is part of an effort to improve sales and player confidence. Although complaints have diminished since August, the new 900 number "sticks in the craw of some people. They feel it's another example of the lottery not being as user-friendly as it should be," Roogow said.
"We're in an industry here where we have to gain the public trust and affection. We want to make it easier for people to play the lottery and find out about the winners," he said.
He said he does not know how much it will cost to re-establish the toll-free lines, which previously cost the lottery from $70,000 to $80,000 a year.
The 900 number, which was supposed to bring in a $500,000 or more a year, is expected to produce about $300,000 this year.
Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, supports a return to toll-free phone lines as a way of "building interest" in the lottery. People may become more excited about playing if they could get free information on winning numbers and jackpots, she said.
"That happens to be a good marketing idea," she said. "These are the people who are paying for all this stuff, and you can at least tell them if they won."
Lottery officials have blamed this year's sales decline on several factors. The agency deliberately held off on advertising and marketing last summer as it braced for a complicated conversion to a new computer system. The computers, supplied by Automated Wagering, initially broke down frequently and operated sluggishly, frustrating store owners and players.
In addition, the lottery decided to stop increasing the jackpots of its popular Lotto game if sales did not justify it, aggravating longtime players. Roogow reversed that practice after he took the job in the fall. Also, sales of the Big Game, a new multistate lottery launched in August, proved to be disappointing.
Pub Date: 12/26/96