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June 18. 2013 10:41PM

Manchester VFW posts fights to survive without poker cash

MANCHESTER — A new commander has taken over the VFW on the city’s West Side, with the goal of bringing in a new generation of veterans — and removing video poker machines that he says were an unsavory source of revenue for the struggling post.

Richard Haugh was elected commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 8214, also known as the Queen City Memorial Post, in April, and made no secret of his desire to shake things up.

Many of the patrons at the post’s canteen have been Vietnam War veterans, as was the previous commander, Gary Reid.

“There’s a generation gap,” Haugh said. “These younger guys aren’t quick to drink, they’re not heavily smoking anymore,” he said, referring to soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What worked for the older guys doesn’t work these days.”

In particular, Haugh wanted to change the canteen from a dark den with three video poker machines. There was the “moral issue,” and then, as Haugh recently learned, there were the hefty city license fees for the “amusement devices,” which totaled more than $6,100.

Haugh said Reid paid the fees in April, after Haugh’s election as commander and despite Reid knowing that he intended to “remove the machines” when his term began June 10.

Haugh sought a refund of the fees, and that’s how the issue came before the aldermen’s Committee on Administration on Monday.

The aldermen ended up rebuffing Haugh’s request for a refund.

“I’m a veteran, and I sympathize,” Ward 7 Alderman William Shea said. “The problem is, if we do it for you, we have to do it for someone else.”

At the same time, the committee approved a motion to have the finance director examine how the city could make a donation to the VFW post to offset the cost of the permits.

“He’s trying to keep the post alive,” Alderman-At-Large Dan O’Neil said. “We have some kind of obligation to the vets.”

Gary Reid, the former commander of the post, said it was “stupid” of him to pay the permit fees.

“I assumed he wanted to run things the way they always did,” he said.

Reid said the video poker machines had been there for decades and were a source of revenue that funded the wider mission of the VFW in assisting veterans.

“Part of the problem was the canteen was the only business arm of the VFW,” Reid said. “If (Haugh) doesn’t’ feel he needs those machines to keep the VFW going, that’s up to him.”

How much money?

Just how much revenue was generated by the machines is not clear. Gambling, of course, is illegal in the state, and Reid and others were hazy about how any winnings from the machines were redeemed.

In any case, it doesn’t appear that the city’s licensing department, which charges $2,000 per machine per year, has looked too closely at how the machines operate.

This is part of the reason Haugh sought to remove the machines, which are now off the premises.

“There are a lot of prominent names (that belong to the VFW), like police officers ... They don’t want to be associated with something like that,” he said, adding, “I just got hired by the TSA. I’ll be damned if I turn my eyes away from what’s going on. We know what those machines are being used for.”

Haugh added, “I heard those machines made tons of money, millions ... I can’t prove it, but I heard rumors that it paid for houses in Florida.”

A new generation

In targeting the machines, Haugh’s larger goal is to make the atmosphere at the post’s canteen more accommodating to a new generation of veterans.

“We all have this one thing in common, and that’s combat time. We can’t go into a normal everyday bar and relate to everybody and have that outlet,” Haugh said.

Haugh retired from the Army as a sergeant in the late 1980s. He joined the VFW when he was living in Thailand, where he lived for nine years with his wife.

Since taking over the Manchester post, Haugh has sought to brighten the canteen and boost the post’s presence on the Internet, with an improved website and Facebook page.

“We wiped the cigarette stains from the walls, pulled money out of our pockets to change the stained ceiling tiles,” he said, adding, “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

The post is on shaky financial ground. Haugh said the organization is $19,000 in debt. This includes unpaid city tax bills. Last year, the city started charging the VFW, A tax-exempt organization, for the portion of the property its rents out to a barber and other tenants.

Reid said he only came back to lead the organization a couple years ago, at the urging of the state commander.

“The guy before me ran it into the ground,” he said.

As for the new leadership of the post, Reid said he’s happy to let it be someone else’s responsibility.

“I’m washing my hands of the whole thing. I told him I’m going on vacation,” he said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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