Area lawmakers among those working to save greyhound racing industry

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WHEELING — Steve Sarras said each of his 84 greyhounds eats up to 2.5 pounds of beef per day in preparation for running at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. This meat is in addition to the cost of vitamins, housing, training, grooming and other related expenses he incurs as a breeder.

Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, said there is no way his industry can survive if the Legislature eliminates the state’s Greyhound Breeding Development Fund to save $15 million.

“If you take that breeders’ fund money, this industry is bust as of July 1,” Sarras said. “When you take away the breeders’ fund, you unemploy anyone who is involved in the industry in West Virginia.”

Legislators representing Ohio County seem to agree with Sarras. In fact, Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, who also serves as president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, said the negative economic impact — assuming the end of the fund would result in the end of greyhound racing — in the Northern Panhandle would outweigh any potential gain for the state in the ongoing effort to close the $455 million projected budget gap.

“The Northern Panhandle would be losing a lot more than $15 million, all so the state can save $15 million,” she said. “This also doesn’t account for how many local companies do business with Wheeling Island, or for what will happen to the greyhounds if racing goes away.”

According to a West Virginia University study, greyhound racing is responsible for about $17.9 million worth of annual business activity, $4.6 million in compensation for employees and $213,900 in tax revenue for Ohio County alone.

“I am telling you, if this passes, kennels will not be able to afford to operate,” Sarras said of Senate Bill 437, which would redirect the breeders’ fund money to the state’s Excess Lottery Revenue Fund for appropriation by the Legislature. “It is a death blow.”

Storch, along with Sarras and Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, also take issue with the some state GOP leaders characterizing the breeders’ fund as a “subsidy.”

“It is a total misnomer that it is a subsidy. If you don’t go to the casino and don’t gamble, none of your money is ever going to go to the greyhounds,” Storch said.

“All of this money is raised at the track. This is not a situation where taxpayers are funding this through income taxes or any other taxes applied to the general public,” Fluharty added.

Budget Trouble

A dramatic downturn in the coal industry has significantly hampered Mountain State revenue in recent years. This leaves Democratic Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican-led Legislature at odds over how to fill a projected $455 million budget hole this year.

Last week, GOP leaders announced plans to cut expenses to match a projected $4.055 billion in revenue. With the state’s education system and Department of Health and Human Resources facing cuts, some legislators believe it is only natural to cut the $15 million breeders’ fund, as well as the $9 million Casino Modernization program. This is the program that allows Wheeling Island, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort, and the state’s other racetracks to receive a 50-cent reimbursement for every $1 they spend on new slot machine equipment.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said he would not support ending the breeders’ fund because he understands it is important for his district. However, he cited other senators’ concerns regarding cuts to DHHR and education.

“It is not that they want to just harm an industry,” Ferns said of those who want to eliminate the payouts. “We have to prioritize spending.”

However, Storch said she believes some in her party are eager to cut the breeders’ fund because of the money former Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s family earned from the industry.

“With some of them, it’s punitive,” she said of GOP legislators. “The Tomblins made a lot of money off it — yes they did.”

Greyhound Racing and Breeders’ Fund

According to the West Virginia Racing Commission, Tomblin Kennel Inc. got $188,939.67 from the fund in 2015. For several years, this kennel, along with other recipients with the last name of Tomblin, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund.

However, this was not the highest dollar amount paid to a breeder in 2015, as Patrick McMillon got $511,932.90; Monroe Racing Inc. received $416,313.82; Greg Strong collected $314,263.60; and Greg Geter took in $311,263.43. This money is in addition to the purse funds kennel operators can claim by winning races, which can yield substantially more profit.

Greyhounds race at both Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort near Charleston. Prior to West Virginia leaders approving video lottery in 1994, greyhound racing was the primary function of both the Wheeling and Charleston tracks.

Once live poker and other forms of table gambling joined the slot machines in 2007, some in the Mountain State began to wonder if greyhound racing should continue receiving payouts from the breeders’ fund — or be allowed to continue at all.

Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle showcase thoroughbred horses instead of greyhounds. The pending greyhound legislation would not impact the Thoroughbred Development Fund, nor the purses given to the winners of thoroughbred races.

“Why aren’t they going after the thoroughbred money?” Sarras asked. “That’s what I want to know.”

Storch said she believes the money for horses is not being targeted because many in Charleston cite West Virginia’s border with Kentucky, which is known around the world for its annual Kentucky Derby. She also said the West Virginia Derby, held annually at Mountaineer, is a “great event.”

“Thoroughbreds are, in a way, kind of sexier,” she said.

Future

Sarras said he previously also raced greyhounds at the Mardi Gras Casino, but stopped because he could no longer make money doing it. He hopes legislators do not end the breeders’ fund.

“It is not a subsidy,” he said. “If you hate gambling and don’t go to casinos, none of your money is being used for this. It is a farce to call it a subsidy.”

Fluharty joins Ferns and Storch in the Ohio County delegation opposing the cuts. State Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, who also represents Ohio County, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

“A lot of people depend on this industry,” Fluharty said. “I will oppose any bill that is clearly going to cut revenue and jobs in West Virginia.”

Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said anything that “hurts jobs or tourism” is bad for the Friendly City.

“It is an important jobs issue here in Wheeling,” he said. “I don’t think it can survive without a fund like this.”

Kim Florence, president and general manager of the Wheeling track, said she hopes legislators can reach the best possible solution.

“Wheeling Island understands the state is facing serious budget challenges. We are focused on working with our legislators in finding a solution that supports jobs and revenue growth in our Wheeling community and the state,” she said.

Officials at Mardi Gras did not return calls seeking comment.

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