Ted Siefer's City Hall: Video machines and gambling: What gambling?
THIS WEEK'S good question award goes to Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne.
The topic at Tuesday's meeting of the Administration Committee was video poker machines and their reputed use for gambling. The city charges $2,000 a year to license a single machine.
"You're allowing people to pay 50 bucks for a pinball machine and $2,000 for another. What does that tell you about what's going on with them?" Osborne asked with a grin.
One person not smiling was Ward 12's Keith Hirschmann, the alderman who put the matter on the agenda. He was alarmed after reading about the bust of a drug ring whose alleged ringleaders were tied to a West Side pizza restaurant that was licensed to have three video poker machines.
Hirschmann thinks the city is essentially selling licenses to gamble and that the machines could lead to other "illicit" activities.
But Hirschmann didn't find a whole lot of like minds on the committee. Its chairman, Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, pointed out that the ordinance governing the "amusement devices" has numerous restrictions.
City Clerk Matt Normand, whose office oversees the licensing of the machines, backed up Craig.
"I would consider it an extremely strong ordinance, regarding not only what devices are licensable, but where they're placed," he said.
"There's no exchange of money permitted, and if they're caught, they lose all the devices, and they risk losing their business license," he said.
Normand didn't mention it, but it bears noting that the machines generated about $240,000 in revenue for the city in the 2014 fiscal year.
Determining whether a video poker machine is being used by an establishment for gambling falls to the police, and it's a resource-intensive task, involving undercover work and surveillance.
Manchester police, in coordination with the state Liquor Commission and federal agents, spent the better part of the past year on an investigation of illegal gambling that resulted last month in seven arrests and the seizure of cash and machines from three establishments in Manchester.
But the pizza restaurant was not among them, and it appears that the machines are still on the premises.
Normand said while drug conspiracy charges have been brought against a co-owner of the pizza restaurant and a person state police described as a former employee, there hasn't been a trial.
"To my knowledge, I believe the establishment being referenced ... has not gone to court yet," he said. "We would work with the Police Department after the trial, if there is a finding of guilt."
The committee voted to receive and file Hirschmann's agenda item, but the alderman is undaunted.
"I will meet with the city clerk and chief of police," he said. "I want police involved because we're basically, for $2,000, licensing people to gamble."
Hirschmann has a meeting tentatively scheduled with police officials this week.
Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur raised another issue.
Noting that state police alleged that the pizza restaurant spent less than $20 a month on food supplies, he said the machines give businesses an unfair advantage.
"As a restaurant owner, I look at what I have to go through every month, every day," he said. "It bothers me because I know a lot of businesses are being propped up because these machines, they're pulling in serious dinero."
City finance officials on Tuesday provided their regular update to the aldermen on the Revolving Loan Fund (RLF), and for the first time in awhile, there was good news - sort of.
The owners of JW Hills, the downtown restaurant and bar, were willing to pay $20,000 of the roughly $25,000 remaining on their original $75,000 RLF loan, with a single $15,000 lump sum payment and the remainder being paid off in $1,000 installments over the next five months.
Normally, a $5,000 loss wouldn't be something to crow about, but over the past year, the aldermen have been asked time and again to accept meager settlement offers, or to write off entire loans, at losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Sharon Wickens, the assistant finance director, told members of the Accounts Committee that the latest offer was much better than the last one put forward by JW Hills. "They've been struggling for some time," she said.
"The restaurant business isn't easy. What's being offered is less than being paid in full, but it was definitely reasonable compared to what other people offered to settle."
Alderman Osborne once again summed up the situation succinctly: "Take it while we can get it."
And that's just what the committee voted to do.
By now, you've no doubt heard about STEAM Ahead NH, the program to begin at West High in the fall aimed at setting students on career tracks in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
Mayor Ted Gatsas wants younger students to be able to get in on the action, so he's embarking on something he's calling STEAM Ahead Jr.
The idea is to be able to send all fourth-grade students on an all-expenses paid field trip to the SEE Science Center in Manchester. Gatsas is working on the project with inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, a major booster of science and technology education and the founder of the FIRST Robotics program.
"I think it's a great opportunity to get students interested at a very young age," Gatsas said. "If you get them involved, you're going to keep them involved."
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.