Arundel lawmakers want special fund for casino money

Two Anne Arundel County lawmakers want to protect millions in expected gambling money from being spent in neighborhoods away from the state's largest casino.

Their proposed bill would siphon Anne Arundel's local impact grants, which are estimated to total $117 million over the next five years, into a separate account dedicated to improvements near Arundel Mills mall.

"I'm trying to hold ourselves to a standard so we can say to the public that we got this money, and this is what we spent it on," said Councilman Peter I. Smith, a Democrat from Severn whose district includes Maryland Live Casino in Hanover. He said he wants to increase transparency.

"It's not that we don't trust anyone, but human nature is very creative," he said.

County Executive John R. Leopold's administration opposes the new fund for casino money and argues that creating a special fund would encourage political horse-trading.

"It may be born of good intentions, but it has potential for massive mischief," said Alan R. Friedman, director of legislative affairs. Councilmen, he said, could use the fund as leverage to secure votes by threatening to cut projects funded with casino money.

The proposed fund comes as the state's new gambling law, which legalized table games and endorsed 24-hour casinos, eased the rule that local governments must spend their cut on improvements near the casinos. Under the new law, they must spend it "primarily" in the area nearby.

David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, said, "It does loosen up the restriction somewhat. … Our attorney argues, and of course that doesn't have the force of law, that it could mean [spending only] 51 percent, if you want to take a literal view of 'primarily.' "

That literal view would mean as much as $57 million over the next five years could be spent elsewhere in a jurisdiction that over the past four years has shed more than 100 jobs, suspended raises and put county workers on as many as 24 furlough days to weather the recession.

"I think if you ask most of the county employees who are looking for a raise, they would prefer that money to be available for pay raises," Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond said.

While it is uncommon — some argue it is against the county's charter — to create such a special fund, Councilman Jerry Walker argues it is necessary.

"If the casino was located in my district, I know that my people — the people that I represent — would want to make sure that the money generated by the casino was spent in their area, in their backyards," said Walker, a Republican from Gambrills who co-sponsored the pending bill.

"I think this is sort of a special case because there's already a perception that when you mention the word 'gambling,' there's a question of funny business, potentially."

The council this year approved spending $15 million worth of impact aid on projects that included a firetruck, salaries for firefighters and police officers, a new bus route, technology for a library and cash for Anne Arundel Community College's satellite campus near Arundel Mills mall.

The casino beside the suburban mall opened in June and generated more money than state and county officials predicted. Data released Wednesday by the state Lottery and Gaming Control Agency show that in five months, the casino has raised $9 million for local impact grants, a pace that would generate $5 million more than officials budgeted.

Michael Caruthers, chairman of the Local Development Council, which approves the ways the local money will be spent, said he supports protecting the money from plugging the county's budget holes elsewhere. Local residents, he said, were promised that the money from the casino would offset its effect on their neighborhoods.

The current system makes it difficult to tell whether the cash is being spent over and above what the government planned to spend in the area anyway.

"One of the things that you worry about, quite frankly ... maybe those road improvements were going to be done anyway," Caruthers said. "If the money is supposed to be spent in that area, we want to a mechanism to make sure that it is."