CUMBERLAND - Whether it was spurred by soaring winter heating bills and staggering increases at the gas pump or video gaming in neighboring West Virginia, one thing's for sure - paper gaming has definitely taken a hit.

According to Dave Nedved, Allegany County gaming administrator, $538,534 in taxes and $43,000 in sticker fees have been collected during the current fiscal year, a 2 percent drop from last year.

"We're talking about disposal income," he said of the slipping figures. "When people have to make a choice to pay their heating bill or buy tips, obviously they're going to cut back on tips."

Nedved said he thinks nearby video gaming machines may be a factor in the declining revenues but high fuel costs probably have more of an impact on where dollars are spent.

"We're coming into the two best months (for paper gaming). Unfortunately we're up against the two best months from last year," he added. "It's possible we could finish the year down as much as 5 percent."

Although paper gaming has been a staple of clubs and taverns for years, it wasn't until the end of 2003 that the county began regulating it. Thirty-two clubs, 38 taverns, nine liquor stores and five convenience stores own an operating license.

Nedved's inspector, retired Maryland State Police Trooper Otto Artfitch, visits licensed businesses once or twice a month for random inspections.

On average, taverns operating year-round collect $12,000 in gaming revenue, liquor stores collect $31,000 and convenience stores collect $7,000.

"For some liquor stores it's been, for lack of a better word, a godsend," Nedved said. "Some make $75,000 (a year). I'm actually surprised more liquor stores don't do it."

Allegany County is required by the state to disperse revenues from paper gaming, after funding its gaming staff, to education at 65 percent to 75 percent and fire and rescue services at 25 percent.

The majority of the 75 percent education funding has gone to Mountain Ridge High School. At the end of this fiscal year, paper gaming will have contributed around $1 million to the new western high school, Nedved said.

Although gaming, particularly slots, has dominated headlines on and off over the past few years with Gov. Robert Ehrlich's failed attempts to bring the machines to Maryland, Nedved said he doesn't hear much opposition about county gaming in his position.

"I run into very few people who have a strong negative opinion about it, very few," Nedved added. "The strongest thing people object to is being taxed and regulated."

Garrett County has legislation allowing the county to implement paper gaming, but county officials are still awaiting a final ordinance subject to public comment before approving applications, said County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt.

With video gaming taking off in West Virginia and slots coming soon to Pennsylvania, Nedved said "it's inevitable" new forms of gaming will eventually come to the state.

"We're going to be squeezed between two states that have it. It won't be long before people say, 'You've kind of lost the battle.' Regardless how you feel about it, other states have it," he said.

"It's a form of entertainment just like going to the movies. For some people, they'd rather go gambling than go to the movies. But just like anything else, it needs to be done in moderation."

Tai Shadrick can be reached at tshadrick@times-news.com.

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