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Local anti-gambling group warns about hazards of N.Y. casino expansion

ALBANY – If the state succeeds in expanding casino operations across the state, then expect tens of thousands of new problem gamblers and a fraction of the money needed to address their needs, an anti-gambling group warns in a new report.

The Buffalo-based Coalition Against Gambling in New York, in a white paper released today, says the state’s gambling treatment plan to handle a growth in problem gamblers will provide an estimated $1 per adult. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic costs from problem gambling – from counseling to bankruptcies to public welfare programs – will rise by more than $50 from current levels to $296 per adult.

“The increase in addictive disorders goes up when you increase the opportunities for people to engage in that behavior. It’s not ideological opposition to smoking or gambling or alcohol. It just is what it is,” said Dave Colavito, a Sullivan County resident who is a member of the anti-gambling organization and one of the authors of the paper.

The group’s report comes in advance of the November ballot initiative that asks New Yorkers to approve up to seven new casinos statewide. None of the new gambling halls can be located in a large section of Western, Central and Northern New York, based on agreements that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made earlier this year with Indian tribes to preserve their casino exclusivity arrangements.

While the proposed constitutional amendment calls for seven casinos, Cuomo and lawmakers have agreed to restrict, with some loopholes, the first four casinos to be built to three upstate areas: the Catskills/Mid-Hudson Valley, Greater Albany/Saratoga and Southern Tier near Binghamton.

The anti-gambling group acknowledged the provisional nature of some of the estimates in its report because of the unknowns about the proposed casino plan, including how many slot machines will be allowed in each of the first four facilities or precisely where the casinos will be located.

Based on estimates using national and state gambling prevalence surveys, industry studies and census data and other reports, the group estimated that problem and pathological gamblers now cost the state $3.7 billion a year in a broad range of socioeconomic expense.

They believe that the number will rise by 20 percent with the casino expansion.

The group also estimates that there are 591,000 adult New Yorkers with some level of gambling problem, including compulsive gambling where a person, according to a national treatment group, has a preoccupation to gamble combined with other issues.

If the percentage of problem gamblers rises by 20 percent, which the anti-gambling group says is possible, it would increase the number of problem gamblers by 118,000.

Acknowledging that some might disagree with such a large jump in the number of problem gamblers with the opening of four casinos in a state that already is home to a large number of gambling outlets, Colavito defended the group’s estimate.

“The debate can be by how much, but experts say it’s going to go up, not down,” he said of the number of problem gamblers.

A spokesman for the governor, who has pushed the casino measure for two years, said the Cuomo administration had not yet seen the group’s report and declined to comment.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have said their gambling-expansion program acknowledges that some people could experience gambling problems, so the plan envisions casino operators providing $500 per slot machine and table game each year for treatment programs.

The coalition, though, says that amount will result in only about $1 per adult for what is a $247 per-capita adult gambling problem in New York.

The anti-gambling group, formed in Buffalo in 2004, also believes that the state is not providing a fair revenue-sharing arrangement with localities near future casinos.

Host towns, for instance, will benefit financially more than adjoining towns, even though those nearby localities will still bear the same socioeconomic costs, as well as infrastructure expenses associated with such things as more vehicle traffic and law enforcement, according to the coalition.

The group estimates, for instance, that Wawarsing, an Ulster County town where developers are hoping to locate a casino, will see revenue-sharing money totaling $693 per adult, while the rest of the county will see only $32 per adult.

“If casino expansion is to be so beneficial for all residents of the state, why should those in host towns receive a state tax benefit so much greater than everyone else? As host towns, presumably their ‘casino dividend’ already far surpasses that for non-host towns and counties,” the report states.

Colavito said voters are not getting enough details about the expansion to properly weigh costs versus benefits.

“All we’re getting is the chicken-in-every-pot view. Some people are going to get jobs and money will be made. That’s not in dispute,” he said.

“What’s in dispute is whether the communities will be better off on balance.”