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Cheektowaga sacks 89-year-old bingo inspector

Anthony Prep knows his way around the dozen or so church, fire and VFW halls that sponsor bingo in Cheektowaga.

Prep is one of four part-time bingo inspectors each paid $6,000 a year by the town to monitor bingo operations run by nonprofit organizations.

Or he was until he was recently let go.

The Cheektowaga Town Board in a 4-3 vote did not renew the 89-year-old Prep's appointment as bingo inspector. It kept three other inspectors and appointed a new inspector, Christine Witkowski, who already worked for the town as a part-time court clerk.

The action came after an unprecedented plea from Prep that occurred during the board's public comment segment of its meeting, when he asked the council members not to fire him. A 28-year Democratic party committeeman in Cheektowaga, Prep helped determine his party's candidates, gathered ballot petitions for them and worked for their election.

"When he came before the board to present his own case, it hit home," said Cheektowaga Supervisor Diane Benczkowski, who voted to keep Prep. "He always was very active in the community. He took pride in his job."

After the meeting, Benczkowski took to Twitter.

It was retweeted by Erie County Executive Mark. C. Poloncarz.

Cheektowaga Council Member Gerald Kaminski was one of the four officials who voted Prep out.

"Everyone knows it's a political position; no one can argue that," Kaminski said. "I've known Tony over the years, and I think it was time for him to go. I understand the part about Tony being a veteran, but you have to be agile to get between those tables. And elderly ladies tend to get emotional at bingo games."

Bingo inspectors arrive approximately a half hour prior to the calling of the first ball and remain on site until the game's conclusion. They examine the equipment (including the balls) and verify the identification badges of the volunteers. One of their primary responsibilities is to confirm the profits generated are properly reported.

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It is not unusual for bingo inspectors in Cheektowaga to serve for 10 to 25 years, said Benczkowski, who took exception to the way Prep was dismissed after only nine years on the job.

"This one person was singled out," she said. "Normally they all are reappointed. Just to get rid of one is mean."

The state Gaming Commission requires municipalities to control all phases of the supervision, licensing and regulation of bingo games. This oversight often is delegated to bingo inspectors, people who have served the municipalities in various jobs throughout their lifetimes.

"Bingo is a big deal in Cheektowaga," Prep said. "People don't stick to the same place to play. They'll go to St. Andrew's on Tuesday, St. Philip's on Friday. I counted the boards while they were playing. I kept my figures accurate. I used to zoom down those aisles."

The most recent report from the New York State Gaming Commission shows that $31.2 million was wagered on charitable bingo across the state in 2015, resulting in $2.74 million in net revenue to charities.

Bingo nights – and afternoons – have solid followings in many towns, villages and cities across Western New York, despite competition from meat raffles and casinos.

In Lackawanna, City Clerk Jeff DePasquale is looking to revamp the bingo inspector program.

"We're going to have unified training and institute a minimum number of inspections per year," said DePasquale. "Every person will be trained by a new person, and each year they will be retrained."

[Gallery: 100 things every WNYer should try at least once: Play bingo]

"We're down to three bingo inspectors," said DePasquale. "I remember as many as five. The job is all about verification. They'll make sure the card count is accurate, the amount charged for games is consistent with cash awards."

In Lackawanna, inspectors serve four-year terms and each earn $1,500 a year.

Lancaster Town Clerk Diane Terranova said that town's budget includes $15,000 to pay its four bingo inspectors who earn $70 a night.

The nonprofit organizations that sponsor bingo, meanwhile, pay the town $18.75 per night, said Terranova. A portion of that fee is forwarded to the state, she said.

Of the $18.75 per license fee paid by the organizations to the municipalities, the municipalities are required to send 60 percent ($11.25) to the state comptroller monthly, according to gaming commission regulations. Also,  the organizations are required to pay an additional 3 percent of net proceeds to the respective municipalities to help defray the cost of administering the bingo licensing law.

"A thorn in our side are the delinquent reports filed by the bingo organizers," said Terranova. "It's the clerk's job to run them down. It's hard to get volunteers to work bingo. Background checks are required because they handle money."

So far this year, Lancaster has registered six nonprofit organizations for bingo, said Terranova.

"We used to have a lot more, but they've been whittled down," she said. "As soon as the casinos came in, bingo went down."

Meanwhile in Cheektowaga, Prep, a tool-and-die maker with 30 years at the Bethlehem Steel Plant is coming to grips with life without bingo.

"I'm a home boy," Prep said. "I don’t drink. I don't smoke and I stayed in shape. I'm a committeeman for 28 years, and I can’t lose that job. They can't take that away from me."

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