By Leslie Dixon
PARIS — Oxford County has more than $1 million of casino money in a bank account.
As of Oct. 31, $1,036,440 is being held in a dedicated “casino reserve account” at Androscoggin Bank, according to County Administrator Scott Cole.
Last week County Commissioners Stephen Merrill, David Duguay and Timothy Turner and the nine-member Budget Committee, representing the county’s three districts, agreed to earmark $460,000 from the account for property tax relief in fiscal 2016, beginning Jan. 1. The Oxford County Commissioners approved the move on Nov. 17 as part of their review of the proposed $6.7 million fiscal 2016 budget, Cole said.
The action will leave $576,440 of undesignated casino money in the bank.
Opened in summer 2012, the Oxford Casino on Route 26 in Oxford is seen as the largest economic catalyst in the region, creating jobs and now a new hotel that is slated to open up across the street next year.
The county receives 1 percent of all slot revenues from the Oxford Casino as the host county for “costs resulting from gaming,” and another 1 percent of table games for “gaming-related expenses,“ according to the Maine Gambling Control Board.
The county has received a total of $2,198,201 in casino receipts to date. This includes $801,318 in 2013; $726,631 in 2014 and $670,252 in 2015 through Nov. 10, 2015, according to figures provided by Cole. That money held in the bank yields about 2 percent annually or abut $250 for each of the past six months.
It is only a tiny portion of the total slot and table game income – $662,937,177 in 2014 – that is generated at Oxford Casino each year, according Maine Gambling Control Board numbers.
By comparison, the town of Oxford received almost three times as much from casino money. In 2014, for example, the town received $1.4 million.
The remainder of the money is distributed statewide, including 46 percent to the Gambling Control Board fund to be distributed, 25 percent to the Department of Education for K-12 essential programs and other smaller percentages to smaller entities statewide, such as agricultural fairs and the Maine Community College system.
It’s big money.
Cole said the county has had at least $300,000 surplus in the casino account each year after using about $460,000 for tax relief, but, he said, there are reasons why there is so much excess money left in the account.
“The initial casino money of 2012 was never utilized for anything,” said Cole. “That amount exceeded a half million dollars and forms the residual of the current balance.”
The commissioners determined early on the use of the casino money is unrestricted. But they have pursued a policy of using casino money exclusively as a nontax revenue in lieu of property taxation, Cole said.
Only once, in 2013, did they deviate from that policy by funding $184,000 from casino money for much-needed cruisers for the sherriff’s department.
The county has used the casino money to provide property tax relief in the amount of $1,280,000 over the last three years. In 2013, the commissioners approved using $360,000 for tax relief, in 2014 and again in 2015, they approved using $460,000 each year. The county will also use $460,000 in casino money for property tax relief in 2016. The action was approved during budget review on Nov. 17.
There is some argument to put the excess money to use.
“As an Otisfield selectman, I’d like to see the casino revenue be used to offset the county taxes to our residents but there’s another side to this issue,” said Oxford County Budget Committee Chairman Rick Micklon, who represents District 3, along with Dennis Henderson of West Paris and Lee Holman of Hartford.
As a budget committee member, Micklon said he would support using some of the excess casino revenues for existing and possible county needs in the near future.
“I support using these casino revenues for the greater shortfall or necessity,” Micklon said. “The state has put our towns and counties in a dangerous financial situation with unfunded mandates and consistently changing loss of revenues. Roads, jails, schools, revenue sharing, property valuations – taxpayers and public officials are being stressed at every turn.”
Cole said the excess money is currently being undermined by the deficit the county jail program has been running since July.
Although not budgeted, the casino money is what’s carrying the deficit on paper for the moment and pending state action that could return Oxford County Jail to a full-service facility might further jeopardize the excess casino money.
Since the jails were consolidated statewide about seven years ago, the jail program costs were capped at $1.2 million, below the true cost of the Oxford County Jail program, Cole said. The remainder was made up by the state and by reducing program costs locally. The system worked well for Oxford County, but the state is no longer kicking in its share and the cap remains, which means the remainder can not be raised through taxation, he said.
Officials have said the proposed jail plan could mean raising local costs to $2.6 million a year, which would mean a hike in taxpayers’ bills. The additional costs would largely come from hiring more corrections officers, medical and food services and housing additional inmates.
Depending on the outcome of the pending legislation, it’s an issue that may come back to threaten the holdings of unused casino money.
“It can be taken away by the strike of a pen or a vote of the Legislature,” said Micklon. “It’s not fair.”
While county officials await the outcome, the commissioners are slated to meet again on Tuesday, Dec. 15, to approve the fiscal 2016 budget.
In addition to Micklon, Henderson and Holman in District 3, the Budget Committee is represented in District 1 by Fred Henderson of Greenwood, Russell Newcomb of Norway and Jeffrey Cox of Fryeburg. District 2 is represented by Les Flanders of Lincoln Plantation, Bradford Adley of Rumford and Jane Rich of Andover.