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Mayors’ letter backs House slots plan

Heads of smaller cities say plan would give desperate communities $100m right away

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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A dozen mayors from the state’s smaller cities urged lawmakers yesterday to allow slot machines at racetracks, backing House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in an impasse over the expansion of gambling that has divided Beacon Hill.

A letter from the mayors gave DeLeo needed public support in his standoff against the governor and the Senate president. The letter said the House plan for slots would provide $100 million to municipalities desperate for an instant infusion of cash. But the letter was not signed by any of the state’s big city leaders, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who does not want a single sticking point, such as the racetrack slots, to kill the larger effort to expand gambling, his spokeswoman said.

“He believes there needs to be a gambling bill, regardless of the hurdles,’’ said the spokeswoman, Dot Joyce. “The most important thing he is pushing here is that a bill needs to get done.’’

Menino is not opposed to slots at existing racetracks such as Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Joyce said, but he did not sign the letter because he disagrees with some details in DeLeo’s plan, including giving state law enforcement jurisdiction over gaming facilities. Menino wants local police to be in charge, she said.

Mayor Robert J. Dolan of Melrose, who spearheaded the writing of the letter to legislative leaders, said yesterday that the House version of the gambling bill includes a formula that would guarantee municipalities some financial relief.

Other city leaders who joined his effort include Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan of Braintree, Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg, Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy, and Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette of Chicopee.

“Having these slots in the racetracks provides a definite revenue source that we can wrap our arms around and feel secure in getting,’’ said Dolan, estimating that his city would reap almost $400,000 from the House plan. “We haven’t seen on the Senate side the type of reforms necessary that will allow cities and towns to survive.’’

That sentiment encapsulates one side of the disagreement on Beacon Hill.

A bill that passed the House authorizes two casinos and up to 750 slot machines at four racetracks. A competing proposal that passed in the Senate with the support of Governor Deval Patrick shuns slots at the tracks in favor of three casinos.

City Manager Bernard F. Lynch of Lowell said he falls on the Senate side of the debate.

Allowing slots at racetracks “waters down the impact of the larger, resort-style casinos,’’ said Lynch, who runs one of the larger municipalities in the state. “In order to make them economically viable, you have to sort of concentrate your gambling efforts there. I think [casinos] have a better opportunity of providing jobs and making an economic impact for the state.’’

Some other big city leaders did not sign the letter yesterday but support the House plan if it brings their cities more money from the state.

Building three new casinos could take two or three years, while adding slots to existing racetracks could be done quickly to boost revenue, said Mayor Domenic J. Sarno of Springfield.

“I need direct local aid relief right now,’’ said Sarno, who did not sign the letter but voiced support yesterday for the House plan as an interim step. “Slots, from my understanding, have been directly tied to increased local aid. What mayor is going to say no to that?’’

For Mayor Linda M. Balzotti of Brockton, the sixth-largest city in the Commonwealth, the issue hit closer to home because a number of her constituents work at the dog track in Raynham. She did not sign the mayors’ letter because she sent her own note to legislative leaders last week urging them to pass the House bill.

“It would be a huge benefit for me and my community to hopefully provide some additional jobs for residents,’’ said Balzotti, who added that increased state money could help her fill some 28 vacant firefighting positions. “Clearly an infusion of local aid would help my city.’’

That same motivation prompted Mayor Bill Scanlon of Beverly to add his name to the effort lobbying for the House bill. Local aid from the state to his city has plummeted by $2.5 million over the past three years.

The $100 million promised by the House from slot machines at racetracks could help ease some of that pain. “For us that would generally mean $500,000,’’ Scanlon said. “That would mean some jobs.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.

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