Wheeling Casino continues to push for fee break

WHEELING – Jim Simms said the Legislature needs to lower the $2.5 million annual fee for table gambling, but time is running short because bills must pass out of committees by the end of this week.

“Our clock hits midnight at the end of this session,” said Simms, president and general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. “We need relief now in order to keep these table games running.”

Simms has repeatedly said his company may not renew its table gambling license in July if the fee is not adjusted in some way because the Wheeling facility is on pace to run its tables at a $1 million operating loss in 2013 – which does not even include paying the $2.5 million fee. He said the track has 105 employees whose jobs are directly tied to table gambling.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has introduced a bill that would reduce the annual $2.5 million fee to $1.5 million for three of the state’s four racetracks – Wheeling Island, Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort and the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel (formerly Tri-State Racetrack) near Charleston. He said his bill would not lower the fee for the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.

“Right now, Wheeling Island is paying the same fee for 40 tables as another track that has four times as many,” Kessler said.

Each facility that pays the required fee can have as many table games as it chooses to offer, and that would remain the case under Kessler’s legislation.

According to the West Virginia Lottery Commission, the Wheeling track generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Eastern Panhandle track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling – nearly 20 times as much as the Wheeling facility.

“We are not raising their fee – we are just not lowering it, either,” Kessler said of the Charles Town facility.

Prior to Kessler introducing his bill, Sens. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, and Jack Yost, D-Brooke, joined others to sponsor legislation that would reduce the annual fee from $2.5 million to $1 million for all four casinos – a $500,000 annual difference from Kessler legislation. This bill would also reduce the tax rate on table games from 35 percent to 25 percent, while cutting the number of annual greyhound and thoroughbred racing days from 210 to 150.

“That bill has a lot more bells and whistles on it,” Kessler said of the Fitzsimmons and Yost legislation. “This is more laser-focused on reducing the table gaming fees.”

Fitzsimmons said he “just wants to see debate on the issue.”

“The intent is to get something that can be considered, discussed or amended,” he said. “What is fair? As different locations become less profitable, we may want to look at a sliding scale with different fees based on how much volume there is.”

Fitzsimmons and Yost have introduced another bill that would establish a committee to study the effects of out-of-state competition, but this would not result in any actual changes until the committee would deliver its report on Jan. 1, 2015.

“I have not given up on an immediate solution,” Fitzsimmons insisted. “The study is a parallel matter because we need to consider the long-term impacts.”

Simms, who begins his new job at a casino is southwest Ohio next week, said his successor at the Wheeling Island facility has not yet been chosen, noting he will maintain a role in overseeing the operation until a new president and general manager takes charge.

“There is no time for studying the problems at Wheeling Island,” Simms said. “We may be the first ones having this problem in the state, but if Penn (National Gaming Inc.) enters the Youngstown area, Mountaineer will feel it, too.”

Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern said he supports legislation to reduce table gambling fees for the state’s casinos, after his facility also saw revenue losses during 2012.