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WINSTON-SALEM EYES PRIORITIES IN 2015

by Daniel Schere

daniel@yesweekly.com | @Daniel_Schere

The New Year has ushered in another set of issues for the city of Winston-Salem to consider, ranging from implementing a $139.2 million bond referendum to determining what the ultimate fate will be for sweepstakes businesses. The city council does not formally meet until Jan. 19, but there are committee meetings scheduled before then, and several items from last year’s agenda will be carrying over.

Most city officials agree that the bonds are the most important subject to be discussed in the coming months. The five categories include streets and sidewalks, public safety, parks and recreation, housing and economic development. Based on the city’s debt capacity, it is possible residents may see property taxes increase by 2.5 cents to help pay for the projects. The tax was raised from 53 cents to 54 cents this summer as a result of the elimination of the business privilege license tax and the computer software tax by the General Assembly.

Councilman Robert Clark, who is also chairman of the finance committee, said he thinks the bonds are the most important issue, but is not sure whether their implementation will result in a property tax hike or how high it will be.

“These are not things that you can do overnight,” he said.

Since this year’s budget was passed in June, legislators have also decided to repeal North Carolina’s historic tax credit program and the state’s film incentives. Clark felt these decisions would not be detrimental to Winston- Salem.

“The film credit and the historic tax credit would affect us indirectly in the sense that you have investment in that area and people working in those areas,” he said.

Councilman Dan Besse said he agreed that the bond projects were the city’s largest priority, and said he is particularly excited to see improvements in transportation, public safety and economic development. Besse said he is also looking forward to the increased use of police body cameras on top of the 40 that already exist in the city’s police force.

The council will also face a series of decisions that will determine the outcome of whether sweepstakes businesses may operate in Winston-Salem and if so, where. The current policy allows sweepstakes businesses to operate in areas known as Highway Business Districts, or HB zones. A ruling by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in November determined that there was no difference between “pre-reveal” software and “post-reveal” software, making any game with an entertaining display illegal. In response, the City of Greensboro decided Monday to place an outright ban on all sweepstakes operators that use an entertaining display. The ban will go into effect March 1.

“Given the confusion surrounding the law, we think it’s only fair that sweepstakes machine owners be afforded an opportunity to voluntary comply with the most recent interpretation of the statute,” Greensboro Police Chief Anita Holder said in a press release.

The state has gone back and forth many times on the legality of sweepstakes, but several have been shut down recently. Attorney Jason Hicks, who specializes in gaming law, has said that the interpretation currently is that skill-based games are legal.

“One of the key criteria is whether the results of the game are viewed in an interesting, entertaining display, or whether the results are because of chance or because of skill,” he said.

Winston-Salem currently allows business owners to operate sweepstakes businesses at a cost of $2500 for a business license along with a $500 fee for each machine.

Winston-Salem City Attorney Angela Carmon said the November ruling is being appealed to the state supreme court through a petition for discretionary review. Carmon said the city is currently waiting on the court’s decision before they make any changes to their sweepstakes policy.

“There’s certain factors the petitioner will have to convince the Supreme Court of in terms of why they believe that decision should be reviewed,” she said.

The council had set a deadline of June 30 for all sweepstakes owners to move into an HB zone, or else they will have to close. Carmon said this policy would be rendered null and void if the court of appeals ruling is permitted to stand because all sweepstakes businesses will have to close.

“At that point in time I think it’s clear that the pre-reveal software is illegal and basically the ruling is set in stone,” she said.

If the current ordinance stands, seven sweepstakes businesses will be forced to close. This includes Heather Hills Business Center, CCS-2 Business Center, J&B Food Mart, US Entertainment, AA Internet Management, Liberty News Stand and Acadia Cyber Center.

Many residents have complained of increased crime and disruption to neighboring businesses in the past year, with the concern that sweepstakes could cluster near some neighborhoods. Clark said he understands this.

“I’m not here to say whether they’re good or bad, but I will say the perception is that they’re not great for the neighborhoods,” he said.

Winston-Salem police Lt. Tyrone Phelps said the department has not made a decision on whether it will follow Greensboro’s lead.

“Currently we are in consultation with our city attorney’s office as well as the DA’s office forming a plan for action, so that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” he said. !

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