Lebanon City Council Faces Decision on Putting Keno on Ballot

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Lebanon — The City Council this week will again debate whether the city should allow the state’s new keno lottery game to be played at its restaurants and bars.

Some councilors have said the issue should be decided by residents at the city’s March vote. Others argue councilors have a responsibility to discourage gambling and should not put keno to a vote.

The game could increase occurrences of problem gambling and disproportionately harm the area’s elderly and low-income populations, Councilor Clifton Below, an opponent, said via email on Monday.

“We already have serious addiction problems in New Hampshire creating a public health crisis, including opioid, alcohol and gambling addictions,” he wrote. “Why should we be enabling increased state sponsored and promoted gambling addiction?”

The council will hear from residents at a public hearing on Wednesday before making a decision.

Keno is played through self-service machines at establishments that have a liquor license. Players pay a minimum $1 per card and pick 12 numbers out of 80. Drawings are held every 5 minutes, with winning numbers displayed on a monitor.

The game, which requires town-by-town approval, is earmarked to provide funding for full-day kindergarten programs, with roughly $8.4 million of keno’s first-year revenue slated to go into an education trust fund. Communities are eligible for kindergarten funding even if they don’t allow keno to be played.

Lebanon, with its proximity to Vermont, would be expected to contribute significantly to the game’s revenue, according to lottery officials, who point to a convenience store in West Lebanon that has some of the highest lottery ticket sales outside of Manchester.

New Hampshire currently provides about $1,800 per student to school districts that offer kindergarten, but the proceeds from the game are projected to increase that contribution to $2,900 in 2019.

As keno brings in more money, payments are expected to gradually rise until the state is contributing a total of $3,561 per kindergartner.

However, Below predicts much of that revenue will come from a small group of people suffering from gambling addiction.

In a memo to fellow councilors, he offered statistics showing that those who were abused as children and those who suffer from mental illness or another form of addiction could easily become hooked from keno. Below, a former Democratic state senator, also questioned whether the state would provide adequate treatment to people who become addicted to the game.

New Hampshire’s Lottery Commission currently makes a $25,000 annual donation to the New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling, which is charged with assisting the estimated 22,000 residents suffering from gambling-related issues. The keno law also earmarks 1 percent of gaming proceeds for problem gamblers, which Below worries isn’t enough.

“New Hampshire has a miserable track record of investing even a small share of revenue from addictive activities or any other source in prevention, treatment and recovery from addictions,” he wrote. “Now is not the time to experiment with expanding forms of gambling.”

The City Council already discussed the idea of putting keno up for a citywide vote in October. But councilors decided to put off a decision after receiving little input from residents combined with passionate pleas from Below and Councilor Erling Heistad against the measure.

Few Lebanon establishments have openly advocated for the game, aside from the American Legion Post 22. Under state law, bars and restaurants that offer the game are allowed to keep 8 percent of proceeds, and Legion members argue those earnings could go toward the organization’s good works.

“We would like to see it get put on the ballot and let the people decide rather than it get killed at this point,” Peter St. Pierre, the club’s manager, said on Monday.

Mayor Sue Prentiss said she’s waiting for Wednesday’s hearing before making any final decision, adding she traditionally supports putting keno and other issues up for a public vote. However, she doesn’t expect keno to be popular among city residents.

“Based on how our (legislative) delegation has voted on gambling-related questions in the past, my sense is this measure would be met by resistance in March,” she said in an email.

So far, 11 towns and cities across the Granite State have posed the question to voters.

Manchester, Claremont, Nashua, Berlin, Somersworth, Laconia and Franklin have voted to allow the game, while Keene, Concord, Dover and Rochester voted against it.

The city of Portsmourh also considered allowing keno but officials there declined to put the measure up for a ballot vote.

Councilor Karen Liot Hill said on Monday that she’s currently in favor of putting keno before the voters, although her final decision will come after the public hearing.

“I think, for me, this is not about my personal feelings, regardless of gambling of this particular game,” she said. “The question is whether we should let the people of Lebanon decide if this is something they want to allow in the city.”

Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara also said he wants to hear residents’ opinions. However, he said, Below’s arguments have him leaning toward a “no” vote.

“My personal inclination, my personal feeling is that this isn’t something we want or need in Lebanon,” he said.

Wednesday’s public hearing begins at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.