Decision on VLTs in Saratoga Springs Due By Mid-January

The head of the government panel that will decide the fate of whether video lottery terminals will come to Saratoga Springs said officials have no plans to linger over the controversial matter.

Anita Daly, chairwoman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and head of an ad hoc committee formed to weigh the sides in the VLT debate, said a decision will be made no later than the second week of January whether to permit VLTs at the Saratoga Equine Sports Center.

Officials at the Standardbred track, insisting they can't survive without VLTs, are desperate to obtain about 1,000 of the devices over the strong opposition by the New York Racing Association, which runs the nearby Thoroughbred track.

The devices were approved in October by the state Legislature for most racetracks in New York as part of a sweeping gambling bill that also includes authorization for up to six Indian-owned casinos in western New York and the Catskills and entry by the state into the multi-state, big jackpot Powerball lottery game. In a few instances, including the Saratoga harness track, local county legislators must, however, give final approval for the VLTs. The Saratoga Thoroughbred track is barred from having VLTs, chiefly at the urging of NYRA itself; Aqueduct, but not Belmont, are among the other tracks than will be getting VLTs.

"I wouldn't want to make any predictions,'' Daly said of the county legislature's future action on the VLT issue. She said the board of supervisors is "equally divided'' over VLTs, which officials at the Saratoga harness track say are needed if they are to compete against other tracks in the state that will be getting the devices.

NYRA officials, led by chairman Barry Schwartz, have come out strongly against the nearby harness track being able to get VLTs. Schwartz has insisted his opposition is driven by the community's desire to keep such forms of gambling out of Saratoga Springs. But in an indication NYRA does not have the political authority in Saratoga County that some may believe, Daly questioned the racing group's claim that they are looking out for the community's best interests. "I'm not sure what (NYRA) means by community,'' she said.

Daly said the community's sentiment outside of the city of Saratoga Springs appears more inclined to go with the VLTs, which proponents see as economic development tools to help the harness track and bring money not just to the Saratoga Springs but the county as well. She noted the county's chief farm lobbying organization has come out strongly in favor of the VLTs.

The issue is sharply dividing government officials and community leaders in Saratoga. As some business leaders press for the devices believing they will help the economy, the Chamber of Commerce in Saratoga Springs is about to launch a lawsuit against the entire gambling bill, which, if successful, would block the casinos and racetrack VLT program. The VLTs would be run by the state lottery, which sources say is likely unable to get the full program running before next fall.

Daly, who said she hasn't yet made up her mind on the matter, said Standardbred track officials are pressuring county officials to decide the matter quickly because other tracks in the state are already making plans for their VLT operations. She said the ad hoc committee she created to study the issue, which she insists is composed of members who also are undecided on the issue, will be meeting in the coming weeks to consider the whole range of economic and social issues that the VLT matter is spawning.

"It is a tough decision,'' Daly said. "We can make probably an equal argument for either side. But either way, status quo is not an option.'' She explained that changes will be coming no matter what the board's decision is: either the Standardbred track gets the devices and it sees business boom or it doesn't get them and will have to figure out ways to survive without them.