Sasser switches sides

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Chairman Lynn Sasser said Tuesday that at the next commission meeting he plans to ask for a motion to prohibit electronic bingo in Covington County — a decision he said was prompted by “personal conviction.”

Last Thursday, Sasser told members of the Star-News staff that bingo rules and regulations would be on the agenda for Monday’s county commission meeting, and that he would support passing those rules. These rules would govern charitable bingo in Covington County, including electronic bingo.

It was announced Friday that the proposed rules would not be on the agenda. However, Sasser still contended Friday that electronic bingo was a possibility for Covington County, once rules were finalized.

“It ain’t gonna be a slap-hazard joint,” Sasser said Friday. “They’re going to have to guarantee a certain number of jobs for local people.”

Monday, a crowd of nearly 100 people — the majority of whom attended in support of the Covington County Coalition Against Gambling — attended the commission meeting.

Tuesday morning, Sasser announced on local radio he planned to formally ask the commission to “not let electronic bingo come to Covington County.”

“Monday, I saw something,” Sasser said. “I saw concerned people as I began to scan the crowd — people who were concerned over what could come into our county if we allowed electronic bingo.”

The legal ramifications of bringing electronic bingo to the county also played a part in Sasser’s decision, he said.

“I was told by a reliable person — not that I was doubting the district attorney — that the DA was serious about prosecuting anyone who had a machine,” he said. “That reason standing, who would want to come in and put millions of dollars (into electronic bingo)?”

Sasser also said he felt he had to hold true to personal conviction.

“It’s my personal conviction – the deepest thing — that (electronic bingo is) not right,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number of phone calls I’ve had from people expressing their opinion that it’s not right.”

When asked if his opinion on the subject might change, Sasser said no.

Commissioners respond

Arguably no one was more shocked to hear of Sasser’s plan than District 4 Commissioner Carl Turman, who was in Birmingham on Tuesday.

“I tell you what though, it satisfies me because of all the problems (electronic bingo) looks to create,” Turman said. “I was not going to stand for gambling to come into Covington County unless those machines were legal — but they’re not. We’re supposed to look out for the betterment of Covington County. Now we’ve got to get other things accomplished and leave bingo alone.”

District 3 Commissioner Harold Elmore said he was not shocked to hear Sasser’s decision.

“We’ve all been taking a lot of heat from it, but I’ll tell you, I’ve been against it for most of the time,” Elmore said.

District 2 Commissioner Bragg Carter said while he was surprised to hear of Sasser’s position, he reminded residents they probably have not heard the last about electronic bingo.

“I never did care about seeing (electronic bingo),” he said. “One day, though it’s liable to come here — it could be here now. I wasn’t against setting up rules to regulate it. That’s what people don’t understand; we have to set the rules regardless.

“What I’ve heard from other counties is that they’ve had a heck of time setting the rules after the county already had it. That’s what I was trying to do — just set some rules.”

When District 1 Commissioner David Ellis was asked if he were in agreement with the chairman’s position, he did not give a yes or no answer. Instead, he said, “I don’t think (the motion) will happen.

“When this all started and we sat down, we said if we did this, we would do so as a group and be united,” he said. “That’s not going to happen. I guess we’re going to walk away from it.”

What’s next?

Without the revenue from electronic bingo, commissioners say there could be a new tax on the horizon for the county.

“I don’t know what kind of tax, but as far as other revenue options … (increasing the) sales tax is an option,” Sasser said. “I don’t know if any of the other commissioners feel the same, but it will be up to the people to decide and that commission room will be filled again.”

County commissions only have the legal authority to levy taxes to benefit education; however, the county commission can request an increase in sales or property taxes be levied by the state legislature for the county’s use.

Commissioners have said that department budgets have been cut “to the bare bones,” but other cost-saving measures such as leasing out the Covington Arena and moving the county’s road and bridge work from the district to the unit system have not been implemented.

Elmore said that while a new tax could be one solution, it is not a step he would favor.

“I think we’re going to have to look at some kind of a tax,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I don’t want it to be a tax.”