Updated: June 8, 2014 4:12PM
Most days the Dorchester Senior Center is a relatively quiet place, the lobby filled with the soothing sound of an indoor water fountain.
But that tranquility could soon be replaced by a different noise: Cha-ching!
Dolton’s municipal government — which owns the five-story low-income retirement/assisted-living home in the south suburb — recently awarded a contract to a catering company that hopes to open a mini-casino inside the complex.
Plans call for a lounge with alcohol, food and five video gaming machines that cost money to play, pay out winnings, and are accessible to Dorchester residents and walk-ins, officials said.
While many building occupants like to gamble — Dorchester managers organize outings to nearby Indiana casinos — Dolton’s support of on-site gaming in a building occupied by so many poor people should be a cause for worry, according to gambling critics.
Of the 40 or so residents, roughly half are on public aid — with take-home monthly incomes as low as $90 each, officials said.
“You’re preying on the weakest of the weak,” said Jerry Prosapio, co-founder of Gambling Exposed, an anti-gambling ministry in Crestwood. Other concerns involve the presence of a day care center in the building — and the Illinois Gaming Board’s vetting process for issuing video gaming licenses.
Dolton Trustee Robert Hunt said the village board backed the gaming plan with an eye toward hiking revenue at the Dorchester.
In recent years, annual losses to the village have ranged from $400,000 to $800,000, said Dolton Village Administrator Stan Urban.
The Dorchester has 126 beds but only 44 are filled, according to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
Dolton would receive a cut of tax revenue from any gaming machine at the Dorchester, just as it does from other terminals in town, but those proceeds alone are unlikely to offset the building’s losses.
“We’re trying to bring it back,” Dolton Trustee Sabrina Smith said of the Dorchester’s past financial viability.
The backdrop for the Dolton dust-up is a 2009 change in state law that made it legal to offer video gaming in bars, restaurants, truck stops and other spots where liquor is served in Illinois. The first machines went live in October 2012 — and there are now more than 15,000 statewide.
Overseeing the rapid expansion is the Illinois Gaming Board, a state regulatory agency that, we found, made questionable decisions in the Dolton case. Among them:
■ When the Gaming Board awarded a license to Giovanni’s Catering Inc. in April it was believed to be the first time video gaming was allowed at a “supportive living facility,” which receives government subsidies for housing low-income residents.
■ On a video gaming license application, Giovanni’s identified itself as the manager of the Dorchester when a separate company actually served that role. The Gaming Board apparently did not realize this discrepancy.
■ Dolton leases space at the Dorchester to a day care facility for children. State law says video gaming can’t be located within 100 feet of a school.
Gaming Board officials point out the state law doesn’t consider a day care a school.
But even so, the Gaming Board’s top official indicated he wasn’t happy with the proximity of one to the other.
“I’m not sure we knew about the day care,” Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe told Public Eye. “But you can be rest assured the board will take a closer look at this.”
Jaffe noted that Giovanni’s still needs to pass a final inspection before the video machines (which could offer slots, poker, etc.) go live. That may not happen, he said, if concerns about the day care and other issues we raised aren’t addressed.
Public Eye also discovered that the Dolton village board rejected an offer earlier this year to sell the Dorchester for at least $3 million, even though the development is a major financial burden, having lost more than $500,000 last year, officials said.
And the video gaming contract awarded to Giovanni’s wasn’t competitively bid. Competitive bidding was not legally required, but it might have better ensured taxpayers received the best deal.
State records identify Giovanni’s owner as Loren Robinson, who said Dorchester residents he’s spoken with are excited about his plan.
“People are going to gamble anyway,” he said. “It might as well be close to home.”
This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at (312) 821-9035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.