Silenced slots would irk gamblers

Posted: July 09, 2007

At 10 a.m. yesterday, gamblers poured into Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack hoping for a big win to tide them over in case the smokey, jangly casino shut down its slot machines this morning, a victim of the state budget stalemate.

"It makes me angry," said Marion Griffin, 70, who takes a bus from West Philadelphia four times a week to feed pennies into the slots. "I was here yesterday and won $250."

About 25,000 "non-critical" state employees waited most of the day to learn whether to report to work today. Their furloughs, which took effect at 12:01 a.m. this morning, will curtail services throughout Pennsylvania, closing motor-vehicle licensing centers, state-run museums and historic sites and nearly all of 117 state parks. A temporary injunction kept casinos open one more day.

At Harrah's, customers had their fingers crossed that the impasse between Gov. Rendell and Senate Republicans would be resolved soon.

When Dee Karakaedos, 47, of Roxborough, heard that the casinos might go dark, she thought, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I might have to stay home and clean," she said as she fed coins into a glowing machine.

"It's upsetting," said Karakaedos, who also visits Philadelphia Park Casino and Racetrack in Bensalem, usually three or four nights a week.

"So many people enjoy coming here, especially the elderly," Karakaedos said at Harrah's. "It gives them something to do. It's air-conditioned."

Though the casinos don't employ state workers, they can't operate without Revenue Department staff members who monitor cash flow through the slots and ensure that the state gets its cut. Ripples caused by their furlough will be felt by casino staff from cocktail waitresses to sales clerks.

Carol Malesky, of Prospect Park, who works in Harrah's gift shop, said some employees who might be affected were offered alternative jobs at Harrah's, such as housekeeping, or were told they could use vacation time in order to be paid. Malesky took two days off.

Daniel Williams, a maintenance worker, is among those who will stay on the job, but some of his coworkers "will be eating soup sandwiches," if the budget isn't passed soon, he said.

A few employees of the adjacent track, which opens its second season of harness racing today, wondered if the casino shutdown might be good for their business.

"People won't know the casino is closed, so when they get here they'll come on over," said server Ashley Carter, of Philadelphia.

A spokesman for Harrah's in Chester said each casino department will make its own personnel decisions. Some of the 1,100 workers, he said, could be assigned to other jobs around the building.

Philadelphia Park officials couldn't be reached yesterday.

If the slots machines were turned off, patrons could not return to them immediately after a budget agreement was reached.

Pennsylvania's 9,000 slot machines are tied to a central control computer system that calculates taxes in real time, and cannot simply be put on "pause," Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach said yesterday. When the slots come up again, each is checked to make sure it is online.

Even if Revenue employees were furloughed for 24 hours, it would take up to three days to get the slot machines operating again, Harbach said.

"It won't be just a flip of the switch," he said. Each day they're down, he added, the state loses $1.7 million in tax revenue.

Among agencies most heavily impacted by the threatened furloughs are the state Department of Transportation, which would close licensing centers and limit road crews, and the Department of Revenue, though taxes are still due. About 52,000 "critical" state employees will report to work as usual.

The Department of Public Welfare will continue health care for the poor, food stamps and cash assistance. State police and prison guards will remain on the job. Also not affected will be liquor stores, whose employees are paid through sales revenue, and the lottery, which is financed through a special fund.

A hike in a state park is out, however.

Campers were warned that they would have until tonight to clear out in the event of a shutdown. Many parks closed their gates or erected barriers at the end of business yesterday. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which runs the park system, will lose $1.5 million a week during a closure, a spokeswoman said.

At Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County yesterday, walkers, joggers, bike riders, dog owners and fishermen griped about Harrisburg and considered their options. "It's politics as usual," said Mel Burgis of Edgmont, who was walking two golden retrievers with his wife, Valerie.

"If it really disrupts things, we'll remember it at election time," vowed Frank Baer, of Media, whose own golden retriever, Molly, had just gone for a swim in the creek.

As an alternative, the Burgisses said, they might take their strolls at Valley Forge Park or along Kelly Drive.

Chuck Shanko, of Garnet Valley, who was standing knee-deep in the sun-dappled creek, said he depends on the park for his relaxation. He fishes in the trout-stocked stream several times a week.

"So many people come out here," said the electrician.

If he can't get to his favorite spot, he'll move downstream, Shanko said. Hanging up his rod is not a consideration. "This is my getaway," he said.

At Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County, 1,500 people jammed the huge pool yesterday while staff members waited to hear if they should report for work today.

"The people here love their jobs," said park manager George Calaba. "For them it's not a matter of the money."

When the furloughs go into effect, he said, only four of 38 employees will be scheduled today, just to keep watch on the place.


Working, Not Working

A look at how the budget impasse will affect state services.

Functioning

Inspections for food and animal safety.

Slot-machine casinos, pending a court hearing.

Processing of birth and death certificates.

Health care for the poor, food stamps, and cash assistance.

Drinking-water inspections.

Inspections of hospitals and nursing homes.

State police patrols.

Unemployment compensation and workers' compensation.

Liquor stores.

Lottery.

Not Functioning

Permitting for mining and oil- and gas-well drilling.

State park campgrounds.

Driver's license offices.

Grant programs.

Civil-service testing.

Museums and historic sites.

Highway occupancy permits.

SOURCES: Governor's Office, Associated Press


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.

Staff writer Jeff Shields contributed to this report.

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