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Gambling revenues hit new high

| January 17, 2007 11:00 PM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

At Odie's Big Sky Cafe in Troy, the use of video gambling machines is up.

It's a trend not only at Odie's but across Lincoln County and Montana that's also funneling more money to state, county and local government.

A record $1.13 billion was wagered statewide on video gambling in fiscal year 2006 despite a slight decline in the number of gaming machines, according to the state Justice Department's Gambling Control Division.

The administrator for the division says an improved economy could be the reason. But Lois Baker has other thoughts.

"People get bored," said Baker, who has seen a 20 percent increase in business during her five years as owner Odie's Big Sky Cafe. "They will wait for meals and play the machines and have fun."

State officials said the money fed into the video gambling machines from July 2005 through June 2006 was up over the $1.06 billion wagered in fiscal year 2005 and $1.01 billion in fiscal year 2004.

Gambling tax collections - from a 15 percent tax on gross gambling machine income - totaled just under $57 million in 2006, up from a little over $53 million in 2005. The tax money goes into the state's general fund.

The coffers for Lincoln County, Libby, Troy, Eureka and Rexford also then benefit from the tax revenue.

In total, the county and its communities received $1.1 million in 2006 compared to $880,934 four years ago. The county has 48 establishments with a total of 518 video gambling machines.

A comparison of how much each received in 2003 and 2006, and the number of establishments with machines shows that:

* Lincoln County received $250,284 four years ago compared to $302,824 for 2006 from 178 machines at 22 establishments outside any city limits.

* Libby, $439,408 in 2003 and can expect $534,879 for 2006 from 224 machines at 15 establishments.

* Troy, $72,116 in 2003 with $91,097 expected for 2006 from 79 machines at seven establishments.

* Eureka, $108,618 in 2003 with $156,517 expected from 2006 with 32 machines at three establishments.

* Rexford, $10,508 in 2003 with $10,392 expected from 2006 with five games at one establishment.

Troy City Councilwoman Laura Schrader said the $91,097 allocated for the recent year will help pay for police, wages, maintaining city hall and roads, and more.

"It's kept the mill levy as low as we can keep it," Schrader said. "In reality, it's amazing how much comes in."

Although the county's general fund for operating expenses benefits, county commissioner Rita Windom can't help but wonder if it's a good thing.

"It's a legal business and people have the right to have that business," Windom said. "My concern is if we weren't having a lot of tourists using those machines, then they are being used by residents who are maybe the least able to afford losing in the machines."

For the past decade, the state has seen increases in video game gambling at a rate of up to 7 percent annually, said Gene Huntington, administrator for the Gambling Control Division in Helena.

"It's been long-term growth that I can't explain," Huntington said. "The places that seem to have the biggest growth are the larger casinos and not the smaller taverns with a few machines."

Dan Torgison, co-owner of Torgy's Casino and Grill in Libby, has benefited.

"My business has increased and gaming has gone up here," Torgison said.