Veterans groups look to gambling to keep posts going
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org September 7, 2012 11:12PM
Commander Jim Hogan, of VFW Post 725 in Mokena, had asked the Mokena Village Board to approve video gambling, which it did Monday. | File photo
While video gambling offers veterans’ groups hope for financial survival, they need new blood as well.
“All posts are hurting for members,” said Don Boyer, commander of VFW District 18 which oversees 15 posts in Will, Grundy and Kane counties. “The biggest struggle is getting new men and women into the fold.”
As World War II veterans have died, most VFW and American Legion posts are run by Vietnam veterans. Many leaders said the younger returning veterans are understandably busy with going to school, working and raising families. They believe these younger vets will eventually join.
“We just have to bide our time,” Boyer said.
“We hate to see posts close. We do a lot of great things for vets,” said Pat Tristave, of the Worth American Legion post. “We need more members, more fundraisers to keep us going.”
Posts are merging and closing and looking for new ways to raise money to help the influx of veterans they anticipate in the future. Family-friendly events and video gambling may bring in more people, post leaders said.
Without enough members to sustain themselves, the Orland Park VFW Post merged with the Palos Heights and Palos Park posts. Orland-Palos Post 2604 now has 300 members.
“If we had a bar and (video) games, it would be easier to get new members,” Post 2604 Cmdr. Ron Armstrong said, adding that the post is trying to raise funds to acquire a building.
special case in Evergreen Park
When it comes to allowing video gambling, Evergreen Park is unique — allowing it only for the American Legion Post 854.
“The board has a soft spot for the legion. It does a lot of really good programs during the year. Money from gaming allows them to do charitable things,” village Clerk Cathy Aparo said, adding that the post is “really not a business but more of a club.”
Post 854 Cmdr. Steve Davies declined to comment.
The state law allowing video gambling, passed in 2009, allows towns and counties to opt out and prohibit the machines.
The law does not say a community can pick and choose who gets to have video gambling, but it does not pre-empt home-rule authority either, said attorney Adam Simon, a partner with Ancel Glink, a firm specializing in municipal law.
Elgin, which also considered allowing video gambling only for veterans’ groups, decided not to after its attorney advised that the law did not intend for towns to allow it for some establishments and not for others.
Gene O’Shea, spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board, which regulates casino and video gambling in the state, said the board had no opinion on what communities can do within the scope of the law.
“They are on their own when they do this,” he said.
Updated: October 10, 2012 6:18AM
It was a quiet night on a recent Wednesday at the Mokena Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 725 bar — only eight to 10 people stopped in for a cold one and to watch football on a big screen.
Before the post’s electronic game machines were removed to comply with a new state law, it would have two to three times as many patrons. For some veterans’ groups, the state ban on “amusement only” machines has dried up an important revenue source, threatening the life of these non-profit clubs.
Veterans find themselves on the front lines in a battle with municipal leaders throughout the Southland to approve video gambling.
“Without video gaming, we are in the red today,” said Jim Hogan, commander of Mokena’s William Martin VFW Post 725, where five “amusement only” machines were taken out in August.
To help finance a roughly $30 billion capital improvement plan, Illinois lawmakers in 2009 legalized video poker machines at licensed restaurants, taverns, truck stops, fraternal groups and other locations where alcohol is allowed.
Such machines have existed in Illinois for decades, in some cases controlled by organized crime and usually paying out winnings under the table, authorities have said. The state will now regulate such gambling and get some of the proceeds.
The law allowed local governments to opt out of the plan and prohibit the machines. Tinley Park, Orland Park, New Lenox, Country Club Hills, Homer Glen, Matteson and a dozen others in the Southland have voted to keep out video gambling, fearing it may lead to corruption and high law enforcement and social costs.
Along with fish fries, bingo nights and poppy sales, the “amusement only” machines have been a valuable source of income for veterans organizations.
Now, some not only have lost those machines, they face a double-whammy by being in towns that do not allow the new gambling devices.
“The games brought people in from open to close,” Martin said. “Those people are gone.”
Many others share his opinion.
“It’s a shame that these posts that have done so much for their towns are getting stabbed in the back,” said VFW District 18 Cmdr. Don Boyer, who oversees 15 posts, many of which are “holding on by the skin of their teeth.”
Boyer said New Lenox VFW Post 9545 took in about $24,000 a year from “amusement only” machines and may sell its building and relocate outside of New Lenox, adding that it’s “really a sad situation.”
“I don’t think gambling is a way to raise revenue, but people will gamble anyway. So, if they’re going to do it, might as well do it here. Why chase them across the street?” said Ed Kadela, former quartermaster of Post 9545.
William Conner, commander of Tinley Park’s VFW Post 2791, said his group does a lot for the community and gives back to veterans and schools.
“It would have been a lifesaver,” he said of video gambling.
Some towns have approved limited use of the machines — Evergreen Park allows it only for veterans’ groups, while Crete banned it in bowling alleys — but there’s a question if that’s permissible under the law. Scott Davies, commander of the Evergreen Park American Legion post, declined to comment on the issue.
Mokena has an off-track betting parlor but prohibits video gambling under an existing ordinance and is debating whether to allow it.
“The money we have in the bank will keep us alive for three to four more years. I will work my buns off to stay alive,” Hogan, a Vietnam veteran, said of Mokena’s Post 725. “This post is part of Mokena. I don’t want it to close on my watch.”
Closing their doors or merging with another post is a real possibility, some veterans club officials said. Smaller posts, such as Post 725 with 100 members, are more at risk than Tinley Park’s Post 2791, which has nearly 900 members.
Gambling is not a new concept. The vets’ groups have offered it on a simpler scale with weekly bingo nights, poker nights, raffles and pull tabs and fundraising gambling tickets.
Post 2791 has all of those and likely will offer more to replace lost revenue from the “amusement only” machines, Conner said.
For some veterans’ clubs, survival will depend on how clever their leaders are in creating new money-making ideas. Hogan said Post 725 may hike the price of drinks or start charging community groups that now meet for free there.
In New Lenox, Kadela said Post 9545 usually breaks even on its Friday fish fries and is trying other events to bring people in. There’s an upcoming pig roast and a blues band, with raffles, to raise money for two veterans’ causes.
“We have been living off our savings, and we’re going through that pretty significantly,” Kadela said.
“The economy will make the difference. If people go back to work, that will help. We used to have construction workers stop in for a couple of drinks after work, but they’re not working any more.”
The Marrs Meyer American Legion Post in Worth has applied for three new gambling machines, which will be a “very important” source of revenue, said Pat Tristave, who works at the post.
“We are trying everything in our power to keep the legion going. Any income we can get will help. It will bring in more people,” she said. “We have to have a reason for people to come here. We’ve got to compete with the public bars.”
Richton Park recently approved video gambling, and its VFW Post 311 will put the issue to a membership vote, as required, at its next meeting, Cmdr. Ernie Mercer said.
He has concerns about the gambling machines, but they will be an “additional income stream that will help us perform our mission to help veterans.” Post 311 is a very active group, Mercer said, and could likely survive without video gambling.
Applying for the maximum of five machines is not an easy process, Scott Bulthuis, commander of Midlothian VFW Post 2580, said. It’s a much tougher set of rules, and likely less revenue, than from the “amusement only” games, he said.
Bulthuis said all of the post’s board members had to submit to background checks and fingerprints, and authorities checked to see if there were prior violations at the post with the “amusement only” machines. And inspectors will visit the post to make sure there are no hidden gambling machines, he said.
“They are bending over backwards to make sure everything is squeaky clean,” Bulthuis said. “It’s a nuisance, but you can understand it.”