Press-Republican

August 2, 2013

State officials discuss senior bingo

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Assemblywoman Janet Duprey has vowed to see if something can be done to keep bingo alive at Robert S. Long Apartments.

“It’s certainly something I’m going to pursue,” she told the crowd gathered at the complex Wednesday for an open discussion on bingo regulations.

The meeting, attended by both bingo players and representatives from the State Gaming Commission, came after the building’s weekly, recreational bingo club of 40 years shut down in March after learning it did not have the proper permit to operate. 

The group had been hosting games, attended by seniors and disabled individuals from throughout the area, at which cards could be purchased for $1, 25 cents and 1 cent. 

USE OF FUNDS

Hazel Nichols, who had been the group’s president, told the Press-Republican after the meeting that they had been putting half of the proceeds from their $1 cards back into the club to cover the costs of supplies and dinner outings, as well as $30 Christmas bonuses given to active members. The other half was dispersed as prize money, which could sometimes be as much as $30. 

All of the proceeds from the 25-cent and 1-cent cards were given as prize money. 

In addition, the club charged an annual $3 membership fee, which went into the club’s account.

Duprey asked State Gaming Commission officials to come talk with seniors about the situation that led to them ending their games.

Rich Kuczynski, deputy director of the Division of Charitable Gaming, explained that his agency regulates games of chance and bingo in the state.

Current statute allows for three types of bingo: regular licensed bingo, free bingo and limited-period bingo. 

LIMITED-PERIOD BINGO

Limited-period bingo, he said, allows the game to be played for a certain number of days at a festival or carnival setting and likely doesn’t apply to the apartment complex’s bingo club. 

In order for an organization to play regular, licensed bingo, Kuczynski said, it would have to apply for a bingo ID number from the commission. If that is approved, the group could then go to the City Clerk’s Office to apply for a bingo license.

If that license were approved, the group would then have to pay the City of Plattsburgh $18.75 for each occasion of bingo applied for, as well as 3 percent of net profits from each bingo date. 

FREE BINGO

Free bingo, on the other hand, may be conducted without a license, Kuczynski said; however, players must not pay to participate.

“It’s a free bingo game, where the players don’t pay bingo admission; they don’t pay a fee for their cards or the bingo paper to play.

“Once you start paying money to play, then you’ve got chance involved, and you’ve got prizes being awarded, then that brings you into the world of the penal law, and there are statutes regarding gambling,” Kuczynski said. 

Nominal prizes can be awarded in free bingo but must not exceed $10 in value per game or $150 in value per day. 

In addition, Kuczynski noted, “you can only conduct this kind of bingo 15 times a year.”

CHANGED IN 2008

The former Racing and Wagering Board, which combined with the State Lottery to form the Gaming Commission, used to issue senior citizens bingo certificates, he explained, and general municipal law allowed senior organizations to obtain certificates to play bingo with no license or fees.

However, in 2008, the State Legislature enacted the free-bingo statue, which replaced such certificates, according to Kuczynski. 

“But even back then, under the old program of senior citizens bingo, that bingo under the law was for recreational and amusement purposes, as well, and it also prohibited players from paying anything,” he said. 

SEEK DONATIONS

During the question-and-answer portion of the gathering, Brenda Wemette, who has been playing bingo at the complex for 30 years, asked how the club was supposed to get money for prizes if it wasn’t allowed to charge a fee to play. 

Kuczynski responded that perhaps the club could get another organization to kick in money from a petty cash fund or local merchants to donate small prizes. 

“If you played free bingo, and if you were able to obtain your small prize money or small prizes from some other source other than the players paying, that would be certainly in compliance with the free-bingo law,” he said. 

But even if the group were able to field donations, it would still be able to host free bingo only 15 times a year, not weekly, as desired.

DUPREY TO INVESTIGATE

Duprey said she didn’t recall whether she had voted for the free bingo statute in 2008, as she has voted for several thousand bills between then and now.

But if she did vote in favor of it, she noted, “I’m sure that I would have thought it was something we were doing to help you.

“We can always amend bills,” she added. “We can always change them.”

Duprey said she will be contacting the chair of the State Assembly Aging Committee to discuss the matter and will also speak to bill drafters to see if something can be done to accommodate groups like this one.

“We want people, particularly as we all age, to be more active and be doing things and being social, and that’s part of why we have invested all this federal and state money we have in these kinds of housing places.”

Still, Duprey noted, while it may be possible to extend the number of days a group can play free bingo each year or allow for players to pay just enough to cover costs, it is unlikely there could be $30 prizes without violating gambling law.

“From my point of view, I’m going to be able to get somebody to change the laws just so much, and I’m not sure it’s going to be enough to satisfy what you’d like to do here because it’s not really the penny bingo as I thought it was,” she said.

Duprey also noted that the Assembly doesn’t go back into session until January, and even then, in order for the law to change, it would have to be passed by both the Assembly and Senate and signed by the governor.

“We’re not going to go through that if ... it still isn’t what is going to satisfy what you want to be able to do,” she said, adding that she would see what she could find out and be back in touch with the bingo group.

WEEKLY NEEDED

Both Wemette and Nichols told the Press-Republican after the meeting that they would be satisfied being permitted to sell only the penny cards just to keep the group going but would also like to be able to play once a week. 

“This way, it gets the seniors and the disabled out,” Nichols said. “We don’t even have to have an annual fee or a bank account.”

She noted that offering just 15 days of bingo a year likely wouldn’t be enough to keep people coming. 

“I think we’d lose a lot of people,” Nichols said, adding that the group used to get anywhere from 20 to 30 players, some of whom came from surrounding areas, including Keeseville and AuSable. 

Email Ashleigh Livingston:alivingston@pressrepublican.com

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TO LEARN MORE

For more information on state bingo regulations, visit gaming.ny.gov/charitablegaming.