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City flustered over bingo rule

An ordinance passed in the fall opened Port Richey to commercial bingo. Council members are considering a repeal, but seem to be in a legal bind.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


PORT RICHEY -- Ten years ago, Pasco County regulated commercial bingo halls out of existence after determining they made too much profit for their owners and too little for the charities they were supposed to support.

Last fall, the Port Richey City Council passed its own bingo ordinance. Council members did not, in hindsight, seem to have known what they were doing.

"None of us," council member Phyllis Grae said last week, "realized the implications."

The biggest consequence: Commercial bingo was back in business.

Specifically, the Kolokithas family, owners of the cruise-to-nowhere-gambling boat, were suddenly in a new business. This month, they paid $1-million for a hall and opened the county's only commercial bingo establishment.

Charities with their own bingo nights noticed.

Soon, state Sen. Mike Fasano was urging the council to undo the damage. On Tuesday night, the council will discuss doing just that. But, the city might have painted itself into a legal corner.

-- If it repeals the ordinance, the city faces a lawsuit from the Kolokithas family. According to University of Florida law professor Joe Little, the family could claim damages from being forced out of businesses.

-- The city might consider grandfathering in the Kolokithases' hall. But then, Little said, potential competitors could sue the city, claiming unequal treatment under the law.

For her part, Mollie Kolokithas says she did not open the hall to make money: it's her dream to help local charities make money, and it does give her family a tidy tax write-off. So she said she is mystified by all the fuss about an ordinance passed in September.

"Nobody rebutted it," she said. "No one questioned it."

That, in fact, might have been the problem.

"I can't believe you acted the way you did, quite frankly," Mario Battista, a member of the Suncoast Bingo Council, told the City Council this month. "I heard no outcry for this ordinance."

There will be one though, if the council repeals it: from the Kolokithas.

"I will fight," Mollie Kolokithas said. "I invested $1-million to do what I wanted, to do something for charity."

* * *

The questions about Port Richey's ordinance go beyond the general debate over commercial bingo establishments.

-- The bingo issue first came up in July. City Manager Vince Lupo told the council that "several" businesses had expressed an interest in opening bingo parlors in Port Richey, and the city had no regulations for them. He said he wanted to avoid a repeat of the situation the city found itself in when gambling boats first came to town, and the city had no regulations in place for them.

It is true that there was no city bingo ordinance. But that did not mean bingo was not regulated within city boundaries. The absence of a city ordinance meant the county's bingo ordinance applied, as it had without a problem since 1993. That law allows bingo games to be held only twice a week in one place, which has kept commercial halls out of Pasco County. That's because a commercial bingo hall can't survive by opening just two nights a week.

-- The warning about new bingo parlors and a lack of city regulation came from former Mayor Jim Carter. He is an employee of Port Richey Casinos, owned by the Kolokithas family.

-- Carter later wrote an ordinance for the city and gave it to Marino. How much of that ordinance that was used is unknown: Marino didn't return messages seeking comment. The key difference between Port Richey's ordinance and the county rule is that bingo halls in Port Richey can now stay open all week long.

It isn't uncommon for a citizen to bring in ideas for an ordinance, or even a copy of some other city or county ordinance.

"It depends on how aggressive the individual is," Lupo said.

But council members said they didn't know then that Carter was working for the Kolokithas family, or that the family wanted to get into bingo.

-- A month after the ordinance passed, the Kolokithas family gave $10,000 to a city dredging effort, and $4,000 to Pride in Port Richey, both projects of council members Dale Massad and Pat Guttman.

Mollie Kolokithas said the ordinance and the contributions are not connected. The council, she noted, voted 5-0 to approve the new bingo rules.

"If (Massad) and Pat Guttman didn't vote, I still had three votes," Kolokithas said.

Given the legal perils of repealing the ordinance, no one knows how the council might vote Tuesday night.

Little offered one alternative: Insert a "sunset" provision into the law. That means the ordinance would automatically die after a certain number of years.

That way, the Kolokithas family could make money and make preparations for the change in the law, Little said.

"I don't think any of us have a right to depend on a regulatory system as it exists at one time as a way to prevent any changes," Little said.

Bingo is big money.

For instance, the Knights of Columbus, holding bingo two times a week, raises $150,000 a year at its hall in Port Richey. Others, with larger halls and larger games, make more.

This month, the Kolokithas family paid $1-million for the old Red Cross building at Ridge Road and Congress Street. It averages about 150 players a game, making about $6,200 a night. After $3,900 in prize payouts and $1,200 in expenses, the remaining $1,100 goes to the sponsoring charity, according to Kolokithas.

Kolokithas said she isn't making money on the deal. To her, it's simple mathematics: Make money, pay taxes. Give money to charity, take a tax deduction.

"If I gouge them, all I'm doing is paying more to Uncle Sam," Kolokithas said.

Kolokithas' hall offers a deal: the charity sponsoring bingo that day gets $200 minimum. The charity can have two bingo games a week, for $400 guaranteed. Over a year, that's $20,800 for one charity.

Kolokithas says the problem with some people is they don't believe her family just wants to provide charities a way to make money. She said she'll voluntarily open the books so people can see where the money is going. She'll print out the daily take and put it on the hall's walls.

"People think I'm lying because it sounds too good to be true. I want to help," she said. "Is what I'm saying too good to be true? It's the truth."

* * *

CARES, the nonprofit that helps seniors, is the first charity to sign on with Charities of Port Richey Bingo. Charles Sobel, the chief financial officer, said his group is on a week-to-week contract until the CARES board reviews the deal in March.

Sobel said CARES signed up because it's expensive to run a hall, and CARES survives on donations.

"We're in need of community support, and this generates dollars," Sobel said.

For years, CARES had small bingo games in its senior centers around the county that drew maybe 50 people. At their first nights at the Kolokithas hall, the game drew 150 players.

"We're not in the business to run bingo," Sobel said. "We're here to serve seniors."

But Sobel and CARES have heard the concerns from other charities around Pasco County about a commercial bingo hall.

"We don't want to have any bad blood with other charities," Sobel said. "We don't want to have our name on something that people are in an uproar about."

Jim Kolkott, who manages the Kolokithas hall and has run halls in north Florida, told the City Council two weeks ago that one of the Pasco halls he competes with had 400 players one night.

"I don't think I'm going to hurt that hall," he said. "There's tremendous value in who's there first."

* * *

In the past two weeks, an unlikely coalition has formed against the bingo ordinance. Bitter rivals in local politics are suddenly united by a common goal: get the ordinance repealed.

The opposition started when state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, went to the City Council to explain its ordinance.

"What the city has done here is weakened, gone down from the county ordinance," Fasano told the council.

After that meeting, Mayor Eloise Taylor put repealing of the ordinance on Tuesday's agenda. During the week, a citizens group started circulating petitions.

Lisa Vayre, who's lived in the city for the past two years, is helping to push the petition drive. She said she's uncomfortable with the influence the Kolokithas family wields in Port Richey.

"How can they get more than everyone else," she asked. "I just want what's best for the city."

Port Richey resident Mary Ann Robertson, who hasn't often agreed with Taylor in the past, says she supports her on this issue.

"Everyone on our block has signed (the petition)," Robertson said of her Chapel Avenue neighbors.

And Delores Felske, often a thorn in the city's side, is also gathering signatures on the antibingo petition.

"There's a lot of people who just didn't hesitate to sign," she said.

On the council, Taylor and Bill Bennett want to get rid of the ordinance. Grae said she is unsure what to do, but opposes grandfathering in the Kolokithases. Guttman and Massad could not be reached.

"I am not happy with this bingo vote I made, and I am not going to get caught by that again," Bennett told the Times.

One element that will complicate Tuesday's bingo's debate is that Marino won't be there. He told the council two weeks ago that he'll be out of town.

"I don't know where we're going to be on Tuesday night," Grae said. "I want to have answers."

"I'm scared stiff for my city."

-- Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com .

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