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Mike Whittier of Bloomington concentrates on the rolling letters and images produced by a gaming machine Thursday as he looks for a payout at DR. McKay's Bar & Grille, 909 N. Hershey Road.

BLOOMINGTON —  For a second year in a row, Bloomington is on the Illinois Gaming Board's list of top 10 video gaming cities.

The city dropped a notch on the list — from fifth place in 2015 to sixth place last year, but it's not a ranking the city is looking to promote.

"I want to be in the top 10, but not with that type of distinction," said Mayor Tari Renner.

Locally, gamblers last year poured $57.6 million into video gaming terminals (VGTs), winning $43 million back. The result was $14.6 million in net terminal income, up from about $14 million in 2015, according to data collected by the state gaming board.

"Essentially, more than $1 million of people's salary and earnings are going each week into profit from gambling," said Renner. "That's money they could have spent on other things in Bloomington."

Pete Pontius, director of loss prevention and compliance for B & B Amusement of Illinois, disputes that.

"I think Mayor Renner is blowing gambling out of proportion in terms of the amount of times that law enforcement is involved," said Pontius. "I can't even think of a time (police) have been called out to our location in Bloomington concerning a gambling incident."

Pontius said the Pilot Travel Center, 1522 W. Market St., is among 65 truck stops where B & B Amusement operates VGTs.

Last year, Pilot was the second busiest gaming site locally, with $3.9 million put into machines. The busiest was the Qik-n-EZ at 1607 Morrrissey Drive, where gamblers spent nearly $4.3 million.

Nobody is clamoring in any municipality that "this is out of control and we don't have a big enough police force to manage this because there is nothing to manage," said Pontius.

"Does (gambling) cause problems that the police have been called to take care of? Yes and no." 

Pontius noted that at other B & B-operated locations, someone about every other week punches a video gaming terminal and damages it. Because it's a gaming machine, the damage must be reported to police and the state gaming board, he added.

"I would love to see the statistics on the number of calls the city of Bloomington has received involving VGTs," said Pontius.

In fact, the police department makes minimal calls that can be directly related to gambling at legal establishments, said Bloomington Assistant Chief Clay Wheeler.

"There definitely are law enforcement costs related to liquor establishments that probably support the level cited by the mayor, but I don't see that tied to gambling," said Wheeler. "As far as gambling customers creating problems at poker machines, I can't find any records of that."

There could be police calls that might be related to gambling, but there is no way to track the correlation, he added.

"If somebody loses a bunch money and goes home and ends up having a domestic because of issues that arise from a gambling addiction, there is no way for us to track that," explained Wheeler.

As the head of the city's liquor commission, Renner said he sees the "incredible cost to taxpayers in liquor law enforcement."

While he doesn't have a breakdown of that cost, Renner said it exceeds the city's share of revenue from the state gaming tax.

Big money

The amount gambled in Bloomington was up last year despite fewer video gaming machines than in 2015.

In 2016, there were 55 licensed establishments and 241 video gaming terminals, compared to 59 establishments and 253 machines in 2015.

For the first five months of 2017, the amount local gamblers put into 243 VGTs at those 55 establishments was $25.8 million; they won $19.5 million back.  

The state allows placement of up to five VGTs per licensed alcohol-serving establishment. Those permitted to have the machines include bars, restaurants, fraternal and veterans organizations, and truck stops.

In 2013, the Bloomington City Council amended the city's liquor ordinance to prohibit establishments whose primary focus is video gaming. 

Net video gaming terminal income is subject to a 30 percent gaming tax, of which the state takes 25 percent and municipalities receive 5 percent. The balance is split by the establishments and video game vendors, with both receiving 34.7 percent. The auditing company the state uses to monitor net waging activity gets just under 1 percent. 

Since Bloomington began allowing video gambling five years ago, the city has collected more than $2.2 million in video gaming tax revenue.

Its share of revenue in 2016 was $730,795 — up from $706,270 in 2015; $559,014 in 2014; and $292,866 in 2013.

"That money goes into the general fund and the biggest amount we spend from the general fund is for public safety," said Renner.

Renner estimated that most of the city's share of gaming revenue covers the salaries, overtime, benefits and pensions of just four officers. The department employs about 124 officers.

As part of its liquor enforcement, the city also spends $130,000 annually to hire back off-duty police officers for extra patrols in the busy downtown bar district.

Renner also noted the "thousands of dollars more" in legal expenses stemming from just two alcohol-related incidents: a 2014 case involving a west side restaurant for violating liquor and noise ordinances, and settlement of a lawsuit filed by a woman who accused five police officers of using excessive force while arresting her in June 2013 at an east side restaurant during a fight in which she was not involved.

Normal charges an annual fee of $200 per video gaming machine.

"For a variety reasons, I support figuring out a way to recapture our costs, and that is to have fees for the video gaming machines," said Renner. "But I am not going to bring that to the council unless it is clear that there is support for it."

Follow Maria Nagle on Twitter: @pg_nagle


Bloomington Reporter

Bloomington reporter for The Pantagraph.

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