America Legion Post 267 struggles with having enough finances to conduct their mission of public service, members say, and recently one of their fund-raising methods has come under scrutiny at City Hall.
In their meeting place, the historic building at 156 New Britain Ave., they’ve had “instant bingo vending machines” to raise money for several years. These machines dispense cards referred to as a “pull tabs” or “instant bingo.” The buyer pulls back the tabs to reveal any matches, and has a chance to win between $5 and $500.
On Aug. 5, the City Commission, at its regular meeting, discussed whether the Legion should be able have the machines. A resolution will be brought to them in about a month for a vote.
The reason the decision is up to the City Commission is because state law says that instant bingo games can be played on city-owned property by a charitable organization only if authorized by the city.
Rev. Willie Branch, post commander, said they received a cease and desist order from the city and are awaiting the vote to see if they can continue the games.
Ann-Margret Emery, assistant city attorney, said the city learned about the games when they came up in an unrelated discussion. She was asked to research their legality and found they must have city approval. She said the Legion was asked to cease the games until a decision can be made.
American Legion still in budget crunch
At the Aug. 5 meeting, Branch told the commissioners that the Legion has been supporting the community for 65 years and now is struggling for funds. The group supports programs such as the Salvation Army, Halifax Urban Ministries, Boys State, Girls State, Boy Scouts and Jerry Doliner Food Bank, and provides meals to families at the holidays.
The Legion lost a big source of funding in 2013, when Internet cafes were outlawed by the state.
An expense for the Legion is that the city-owned building where they meet was constructed in 1895, and needs a lot of maintenance, Branch said. The Legion pays the city a token rent, on the condition that they will maintain the property. In March, Branch asked the city for a “partnership” to maintain the building and he recently said he did not get a response.
“This building needs some major work,” Branch said at the time.
Murky law complicates the decision
For the current decision on the pull tabs, complicating the matter is that state law does not specifically state that vending machines are allowed, leaving the law open to interpretation.
In the discussion, Commissioner Rick Boehm said he didn’t think it made any material difference whether a tab was handed out by a person or a vending machine.
“I don’t see a reason not to let them have it,” he said. “They need help and they do good for the community. If we can help them, let’s do it.”
Commissioner Bill Partington said he wasn’t sure about allowing gambling on city property and expressed concerns that an event at The Casements, for example, might request to have the tabs. But he also noted that the law allows the tabs only in a place that has “call bingo” and The Casements does not have that activity.
Commissioner James Stowers said he believes the pull tab machines would present a risk to the city, because the law is not clear.
Mayor Ed Kelley pointed out that when the state seized the Internet gaming machines in 2013, the city suffered nothing, so he didn’t think there’s a risk to the city even if the machines are eventually determined to be illegal.
The commissioners seemed inclined to vote in favor of the pull tab machines when the matter comes before them in about a month.
But Partington told Branch that the big problem for the Legion is that membership is dropping off.
“I’m just asking you to look at what you are doing and try to gain new members,” he said.
After the meeting, Branch said they are starting to get veterans from the wars in the Persian Gulf. He said the money from the vending machines brought in a few thousand dollars a month, but even if they are restored, the Legion will still have financial problems.