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Lottery usage, payoffs vary

Some towns doubt their share is fair

Most days, Tom Rickman drives to the Family Market on Main Street in Waltham during his lunch break. Each week, he drops about $100 on lottery tickets. Rarely does he win, or even break even.

"Everybody who gambles is never ahead," Rickman says. "But it's those jackpots, those huge jackpots. It's a long shot, but like they say in horse races, long shots do come in."

Alex Patel , a daytime manager at the Waltham store, says there are at least 30 daily regulars like Rickman, some dropping up to $500 at one time. And the Family Market, which prominently displays its 35 scratch tickets, is just one of 56 lottery sales locations in the city.

Two miles down the road in Lincoln the scene is much different. At Donelan's Supermarket, the only place in town that sells lottery tickets, the lottery kiosk is barely noticeable, tucked away behind a newspaper stand. The store has just one regular.

"This is Lincoln. They don't have to play the lottery," said Kelly Waldsmith, the store's office manager. "I mean, nine out of 10 people who come in here don't even know how to use the scratch tickets."

While it is expected that wealthier communities would gamble less, the difference among communities is striking, according to a Globe West analysis of state Lottery Commission figures for last year.

Waltham logged $52.5 million in sales, the most in the region. Framingham was second with $39 million, followed by Watertown ($27 million), Marlborough ($23 million), and Newton ($22 million).

Places where residents are least likely to play the lottery: Lincoln, Dover, Sherborn, and Weston, which combined generated less than $1.7 million in sales.

Globe West also analyzed lottery spending per capita. Last year, ticket sales in Lincoln averaged $24 per resident, compared with a whopping $1,520 per resident in Bellingham. Put another way, local lottery sales equal less than 50 cents of each Lincolnite's weekly paycheck, but near $30 of each person from Bellingham.

The figures offer only a general picture and don't distinguish lottery sales to out-of-towners or other important details, such as the concentration of stores and workplaces.

Still, the data for Globe West communities appear to be loosely linked to education and income levels, which fits with national trends. The communities that generate the most lottery sales also generally have more minorities, fewer homeowners, and fewer residents with a college degree.

"There's definitely more play in lotteries in poorer communities," said Robert Goodman, a professor at Hampshire College and author of "The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion." "If you look at why people gamble, there's a spectrum. At the top end, wealthier people tend to see it as entertainment. With lower-income people, they see it as investment."

The state began a lottery ad campaign last month to raise more money for state and municipal coffers. The effort comes after eight years of banning most lottery advertising because of critics' complaints that it targeted the poor. The ban existed for so long largely because the then-Senate president, Thomas F. Birmingham, opposed the advertising. After Birmingham's departure last year, and as state revenues dwindled, lawmakers turned to lottery advertising to raise money.

Bringing in about $4 billion each year, Massachusetts is second only to New York in lottery sales.

Each community in the state receives a portion of the money collected from lottery sales.

Last year, the state agency doled out $661 million of its revenue, or about 25 percent, to the state's 351 cities and towns. The rest of the money was used for operating expenses and for prize money.

It is up to each community to decide how to use the funds. Most put the money into their general funds, although some municipalities earmark the money for things like police cruisers or teacher pay.

The state uses a complex formula based on a community's overall valuation to decide how divvy up the money. State officials defend the method as the most fair.

But it results in a wide disparity between the revenue generated from sales in each community and the funds distributed sent back.

Ashland, for example, sold $13 million in tickets last year, but received $969,000, or 7 percent, back through state aid. Meanwhile, Lincoln turned a profit, selling $139,000 in tickets and getting $443,000 from the state. The average Bay State community received almost $2 million.

"It seems unfair," Goodman said. "Why they do it that way, I have no idea. But it's certainly regressive in terms of who pays and who benefits."

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, emphasized the importance of lottery money in local budgets and defended the state's disbursement formula.

"It's a very progressive formula and it's widely accepted," he said. "The greatest share of sales goes back to the communities who need it the most."

Beckwith would not comment directly on specific communities -- or the disparity between Ashland and Lincoln -- but he said going to a "point of sale" system, where communities would be reimbursed based on how much money is generated, would be unfair.

"That's like saying that the state's sales tax should only go to where the sales occur," he said. "The best way to do it is to collect the funds and then distribute it in a way where there's a broad consensus."

Although some communities are unhappy with the current system, he said, most support it.

Matt Viser can be reached at viser@globe.com.

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