Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Politics of Bingo, Ontario Style

Here in River City, many (if not most) charity organizations get a portion of their funding from bingo and other gaming revenue. Baseball clubs, alumni associations, churches, and service groups (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.), to name a few, are all involved. In order to maintain control of the games, to be sure they are run in a fair manner and that all charities have a chance at the proceeds, the government licenses and supervises the bingos (and of course, so the government can get their share, too).

All registered charities are eligible for membership in a charity association (the organization that actually runs the bingo hall). The CA supervises the commercial organization that manages the hall—hires the callers and runners, purchases the paper, maintains the hall, etc. Each charity gets a certain number of licences (permits) per year to run a bingo. It is possible to petition for more, and some charities do (usually the very large organizations, like hospitals and the symphony). The CA schedules the charities into the hall, and the charity provides workers from their members (real members, not people they hire) to run the bingo. It varies from hall to hall—some places the charity workers sell all the paper (the cards people play on), in some they just sell the main cards at the counter, and in some they only take care of payouts (prizes) and keep track of the numbers. At the end of every month, the profits from the hall are divided up among all the charities that staffed the hall that month, based on how many two-hour sessions they staffed (not on how much was taken in during the sessions they worked). Some of the government’s portion goes to other charitable work (in Ontario, for instance, to the Trillium Foundation, which gives grants to community organizations for community improvement). So even organizations that don’t staff bingo halls benefit from bingo.

As to the moral issues—it bothered me from the beginning, and still does. As a former Methodist, I have a deep-seated aversion to anything that resembles gambling. I remember the ruction at a former church when the ladies wanted to raffle off a quilt—that was gambling! I’ve seen the sort of person who plays bingo—many of them surely could use the money to better effect. And certainly there is an effect on the church members—if the church is earning money from bingo, surely they don’t need as much in donations! That hampers discipleship and stewardship. And it takes a lot of energy—we have one person whose job is bingo coordinator—filling out the applications and obtaining the license every month (we do one bingo a month), making sure there are workers for the date, taking care of the paperwork (such as balance sheets through the session, float deposits, and a report afterwards, to name a few). The larger organizations that do several a month have paid bingo coordinators.

On the other hand, if we were not working the bingo, someone else would be. And while I may feel that the customers could spend the money in better ways, they are all adults and able to choose how to spend their money. Bingo is not as addictive nor as expensive as other forms of gambling (say slots or horse racing or roulette). And it does (or did until recently) bring in funds to allow us to keep the church going while we go through our transition.

On balance, I have to say I am glad we are being forced to find other means of funding. I resisted going into bingos in the first place (and the church had a bad history with bingos in the past), and we were clear at the time that it was temporary only. Well, it really was!

My concern and frustration is that so many of the charity organizations are simply being dumped, in effect. The hospitals, cultural groups and service clubs will find other methods of fundraising via grants, benefactors, and so on. But the small clubs, the community support group, the kids’ soccer league—those sorts of organizations face a real possibility of collapse, and there doesn’t seem to have been any kind of forethought about that. Many of the grants that the larger groups are eligible for will be harder to get since there will be less revenue from the bingos (which fund many of the granting foundations). What will we do without the baseball clubs (many of which used bingos to keep costs low so all the neighbourhood kids could participate), the free anger-management classes, the respite care groups, the safe house for domestic violence victims? The government will have to step in, at least in some cases, to provide equivalent services, or else face increased costs in other ways—through the court system, when the abuser faces charges again, because he couldn’t get into an anger-management class, or the new Canadian who is forced onto welfare because the English as a second language class was full and she can’t get a job.

In fairness, it could be said that the province couldn't have known that the situation would get this dire--several factors came together in a "perfect storm" scenario. The increased difficulty of crossing the border, the higher exchange rate, the smoking ban, the layoffs--all these added up to fewer people in the bingo halls. But the gaming authorities had to know that there would be some effect on the bingos (and on the Casino in town, which is a private concern, but a large employer).

I can’t argue with the demise of bingo, to be honest. But I wish some more thought had been put into helping the organizations that depended on it—partial funding for a transition period, training in other methods of fundraising, and so on. It’s become a sink-or-swim system in which some organizations that deserve to live will drown. The hospitals and symphony and Rotary will survive. But the Southside Baseball Club and the Immigrant’s Centre and the Family Support Centre may very well not. And that would be a pity and a crime.

1 comment:

Rainbow Pastor said...

I have to apologize for a sentence in this entry. I used the term, "the sort of person who plays bingo." That was inexcusably snobbish and rude. I should have said, "many of the people who play bingo at the hall where the church works could, it seems to me, used the money to better effect."
My apologies to you all.

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