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Debating a casino in Carlisle: Council will listen to residents' comments Thursday

Parx Casino officials addressed Carlisle Borough Council last week about their proposal to bring a minicasino to the borough.

Thursday night, borough residents get their turn to tell the council in person what many have been saying through social media posts, emails and phone calls all week.

The borough council will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at borough hall, 53 W. South St. Those who wish to be recognized early in the comment period are asked to contact the borough at 717-240-6920 to be placed on the agenda.

A vote is not expected to be taken on the issue Thursday evening. Borough officials have said the earliest a vote could be taken would be in June.

Comments will be limited to three minutes each, according to a post on the borough website. Borough officials are also asking residents not to repeat what others have already said in order to give more people the opportunity to speak. A Facebook post concerning the meeting also noted that “this a ‘comment period’ and not designed as a way to debate council members or staff.”

At last week’s borough council workshop session, Anthony Ricci, CEO of Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment, which owns and operates Parx, sketched out what the borough might expect to see should the borough council vote to overturn its previous resolution to opt out of hosting a casino in town. The Category 4, or mini, casino would have between 300 and 750 slot machines and could also add up to 30 table games initially.

In February, the owners of Parx Casino picked a general location along Interstate 81 in Cumberland County for its Category 4, or mini, casino. The minicasino could be built anywhere within 15 miles of a centerpoint in South Newton Township.

The casino owners have roughly four months remaining on their six-month window in which to apply to the state for a Category 4 slot machine license. That application will contain the precise site of the proposed casino, as well as details about the casino.

The Borough of Carlisle falls within the required 15-mile radius, but its council voted 4-2 in December in favor of opting-out of allowing a casino. The legislation governing the casino licensing process allows a borough to opt back in later.

Talk of the town

“This issue does seem to have lit a fire under many of our residents, both new and long-term. I have received comments and questions from residents both on the borough email and on my personal email,” said councilwoman Deb Fulham-Winston.

Councilwoman Dawn Flower-Webb said residents have been sending links to articles and providing data for borough officials to use in making a decision that would carry long-term implications.

Many who favor the casino have cited economic and entertainment benefits, but Flower-Webb said most who have expressed their opinion are against it. They have questioned the real value of the jobs the casino will bring and the true cost of the casino to the borough. Residents have also voiced concerns about traffic issues and the casino’s potential effect on vulnerable citizens.

“Having a casino in an easily accessible location for individuals who have a gambling addiction or are challenged in some way by gambling would be a concern,” said Scott Shewell, executive director of Safe Harbour, a nonprofit agency in Carlisle that helps the homeless and potentially homeless.

People can become homeless for a host of reasons, but among them is an addiction to gambling. As with other addictions, those addicted to gambling spend their resources on the addiction rather than what it takes to maintain a household, Shewell said.

Ricci last week championed the company’s responsible gaming program that he said limits compulsive gambling issues, which includes the option for those with gambling problems to “self-exclude,” or effectively ban themselves, from casinos.

According to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s annual report from 2016-17, 11,567 people requested such self-exclusion as of June 30, 2017. Of those, 58 percent opted for a one-year ban, 20 percent for a two-year ban, and 22 percent placed themselves on a lifetime ban from the state’s casinos.

Charm factor

Echoing sentiments expressed by residents at last week’s workshop meeting, councilman Sean Shultz said a casino would “upset the basic character and historic charm of our town.”

Though Parx officials did not name a potential location, the most viable locations are at the gateways to the town which, Shultz said, sends the wrong message.

“While I understand the allure of the revenue that may be derived from a casino, I do not believe we should sell away the essence of our town,” Shultz said.

Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. said that though the goal would be for casino visitors to also stay overnight, he’s confident Carlisle would not become fully identified with the casino.

“It complements what Carlisle already has to offer. It’s not going to make Carlisle’s identity,” he said.

Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment said the casino is projected to bring in $50-55 million, of which the borough and the county each would receive 2 percent, or about $1 million each. The casino is also expected to generate about $50 million in annual economic benefit to the community.

The borough also can’t overlook the tax benefits of hosting a gaming facility, Mayor Tim Scott said.

“The good we can do with increased and improved services while holding the line on taxes is one of the driving factors your elected officials are obligated to consider,” he said.

Scott also said a minicasino would add value to the Carlisle experience, attract other investment and economic development, provide jobs and allow the borough to increase and improve public services without raising taxes or fees.

“After balancing all the factors I mentioned above plus others, I am in favor of the vote to repeal the opt-out provision council adopted in December,” Scott wrote in an email.

Should Scott be joined by three other members of the council to overturn the opt-out resolution, he said he will hold Greeenwood Gaming accountable to the community and make sure they deliver on their promises.

Job growth

In his presentation last week, Ricci said the casino is expected to generate 250 jobs, of which two-thirds would be full time. All save servers who receive tips would be paid more than minimum wage with the average employee earning $42,000 per year.

“In any kind of economy, any time you can get those kinds of jobs and that kind of investment it’s going to be a win from an economic perspective,” Bowser said.

Fulham-Winston, however, pointed out that there was a “wide divergence” between the wage figures cited by Parx officials and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a range of salaries for casino workers in Pennsylvania in its 2017 report. Gaming dealers receive an average hourly wage of $9.44 per hour with an annual average salary of $19,640.

First-line supervisors earn an average of $25.03 per hour for an average of $52,050 per year. All other gaming workers earn an average of $14.92 per hour or $30,190 per year.

On the whole, Scott said the “doom-and-gloom scenarios” have not materialized since gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2003.

“I have carefully weighed the possible negative impacts in our community, and I do not think many of the arguments hold weight,” he said.

A former mayor agrees.

Kirk Wilson said a minicasino can be an asset to the community, suggesting opponents are basing opinions on emotion rather than fact.

“The movie industry in years past made casinos look like dens of inequities. I can’t say whether they were or not, but people are basing their opinions on fiction, not fact,” he wrote in an email to The Sentinel.

Wilson said the casino would not be on the scale of those in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and would not put additional strain on the borough police department. He pointed to Hollywood Casino in East Hanover Township in Dauphin County which does not have its own police force. State police provide law enforcement.

Wilson also said statistics being used by those opposed to the casino are from studies that are 5-10 years old and fail to take into consideration how a smaller casino would affect a community.

There’s also a big “what if” question that hangs over the whole discussion.

“What if we say no and a neighboring township says yes? What if we have a casino on our border with a Carlisle address and we receive nothing to manage the challenges?” Flower-Webb asked.

Any casino wanting to move into a neighboring township would face the same uphill battle it faces in Carlisle as Parx officials would have to ask those municipalities to overturn the “opt-out” resolutions that they, too, passed last year.

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Church hits high note: First Presbyterian's organ restored in Carlisle

An old familiar voice has returned to sing its praises in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church on the Square in Carlisle.

The church recently held a public concert to celebrate the restoration of its historic Austin pipe organ that was installed in 1958. The 10-month project cost the church about $110,000.

“It’s practically in new condition,” said Richard Tritt, a church member and retired organist. “We are good for another 50 to 60 years.”

The restoration effort began in fall 2016 with the launch of a fundraising campaign, Pastor Anthony Lorenz said. He said the congregation was eager to see the work through on the mechanical organ.

Enough money was raised in short order to hire Susquehanna Organ of Dallastown, York County, to start the restoration work in late April 2017 — just after Easter, Lorenz said.

The company worked off-and-on until mid-February to replace the keyboard, install a new blower, re-leather the stop valves and remove, clean and replace each pipe back to its original position.

While Susquehanna was able to do some of the restoration in its workshop, much of the work had to be done on-site within the sanctuary and in the chamber behind the organ pipes, Lorenz said.

The church still had organ music the whole time the Austin was out of service. In 1999, the church installed a digital organ and an interface that allows the organist to play each instrument separately or together. That improvement enabled the church to preserve the tonal quality and look of the historic organ while increasing the range of sounds for a greater variety of music.

Now that the Austin mechanical organ has been restored, the combined instrument produces a much richer sound than just the digital organ, Lorenz said.

“We were fortunate we had two organs,” said Tritt, who served as church organist for 26 years before retiring in 2010. “Pipe organs have to be re-leathered every 50 to 60 years.”

There are leather flaps inside the mechanical organ that regulate the flow of air into the pipe so it can produce sound, Tritt said. “All that leather would eventually dry out and crack. Then the action ceases and some of the pipes go dead. There were some stops we could not use because there were too many dead notes.

“The blower is the big motor in the basement that supplies the air,” Tritt said. “It was getting towards 60 years old and was blowing fuses. The whole blower had to be replaced.”

The church dates from 1757 and is one of the oldest buildings in Carlisle. President George Washington worshipped there in October 1794 when the commander-in-chief was in town to muster the state militia to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in several southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

Known also as the Meeting House, the building had no pipe organ during its first 100 years. Back then, instrumental music was not part of the Presbyterian tradition. Tritt once wrote a detailed history of the organs of the First Presbyterian Church.

The first organ was purchased for $750 and installed in the rear gallery of the sanctuary as part of building renovations made for the centennial year. Built by Mr. Pomplitz, an organ maker in Baltimore, that organ had one keyboard, 12 stops and a hand pump bellows to supply the air flow.

The choice to go with an organ was controversial. “Two women circulated a petition protesting what they called ‘a godless desecration of the sanctuary,’” Tritt wrote. “One member later remembered it as a squeaky little instrument. This first organ was used for 35 years.”

In 1892, the church purchased a new organ and had it installed in a choir loft in front of the sanctuary, Tritt said. The installation work required the removal of several pews and the design of the instrument required the organist to sit with his back facing the congregation. He had to use a rear view mirror to see what was happening in the church.

That second instrument was built by C.S. Haskill of Philadelphia. It had two keyboards, 19 stops and a blower that ran off of water and manual power before the installation of an electrical blower. The Haskill organ was used for 65 years until 1958 when the Austin pipe organ was installed.

“About the time that the new organ was being selected, the church became the beneficiary of a bequest from Mrs. Edward Handshew,” Tritt said. “This fund of approximately $25,000 was enough to pay for the new instrument and it was dedicated in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hanshew. The organ was known as the Handshew Memorial Organ.”

The Austin organ functioned as a solo instrument until 1999 when the digital organ and interface were installed.

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Mechanicsburg Schools
Mechanicsburg School Board OKs proposed 2018-19 budget, 2.4% tax hike

The Mechanicsburg Area School Board passed Tuesday a proposed final general fund budget for 2018-19 that would increase real estate taxes by 2.4 percent.

Next year’s proposed $70.5 million district spending plan would increase the district’s real estate tax levy from its current rate of 13.0560 mills to 13.3693 mills. A property owner assessed at the district’s average value of $176,025 would pay an annual total of $2,353 in real estate taxes next year, an increase of $55.

The 2.4-percent tax increase would meet the index set for the district by the state Department of Education for the 2018-19 fiscal year from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. The school board is mandated to finalize next year’s budget before July 1.

School directors passed the proposed final general fund budget on Tuesday with an 8-0 vote. Board member Joshua Rhodes was absent.

Money raised by the tax increase would go toward operational costs and capital projects in the district, said Gregory Longwell, the district’s business administrator. Financial advisers recommended earlier this year that the district should raise taxes by at least 1 percent over the next three years to help finance several capital improvement projects now underway or planned within the next few years in the district.

Mechanicsburg administrators also propose to use $1.3 million from the district’s general fund reserves to absorb a deficit in next year’ proposed budget. Of that, $738,299 would go toward the district’s Public School Employee Retirement System fund, while another $200,000 would be committed for technology. The rest would go toward general operations and reserves.

Next year’s largest increases in general expenditure involve an additional $1,265,359, or 4.5 percent, for employee salaries and $1,404,632, or 7.3 percent, more in benefits that includes medical and other types of insurance, plus a higher mandated contribution to the state Public School Employee Retirement System. The district’s PSERS requirement continues to increase steadily each year, growing from 32.57 percent to 33.43 percent for next year.

Employee salary costs also are proposed to increase next year due in part due to 12.5 new staff positions resulting from growing student enrollment, Longwell said. Other increased employee costs are due to contracted salary updates.

Professional staff additions at the elementary level would include three teacher positions, a librarian and a counselor. The middle school would have three additional core teacher positions and a new family and consumer science teacher. The district’s special education department would receive an additional emotional support teacher and an instructor for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Support staff additions next year would include an additional custodian for the new Elmwood Academy for grades 4 and 5, plus a half-time secretary position for the blind and visually impaired would be increased to full-time.

Other news

In other news, Superintendent Mark Leidy canceled a board vote planned for Tuesday that would have confirmed June 12 as an Act 34 public hearing date for the proposed Shepherdstown Elementary School and Upper Allen Elementary School renovations projects.

Act 34 of 1973 requires that a public hearing be held on all new construction and substantial additions for second, third and fourth class school districts, according to the Pennsylvania department of Education website. A building addition is considered substantial when the new architectural area divided by the existing structure’s architectural area is greater than 20 percent.

School districts must advertise the hearings and allow at least 30 days for public inspection of relevant documents, like floor plans.[1]

“We want to do a little more conversation (about the projects) and slow the process down a little bit for now,” Leidy said Tuesday.

The school board now plans to finalize a hearing date at a special meeting scheduled for May 22.

Pa.'s GOP gubernatorial primary campaign spending tops $20M

HARRISBURG — Spending in Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial primary campaign passed $20 million, as the candidates headed into the final two weeks of the race with a little over $4 million in the bank, according to reports filed this week with the state elections office.

The reports show Scott Wagner spent $5 million in April, the most of the three Republican candidates who will appear on Tuesday’s primary ballot. Total spending by Wagner and the other two Republican candidates, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth, topped $7 million in April, most of it for TV ads.

The trio is vying for the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s bid for a second term in the November election. Wolf is uncontested in Tuesday’s primary election.

Wagner, a state senator from York County, has made millions in the waste-hauling industry and is the state GOP’s endorsed candidate. Mango is a former health care systems consultant and Ellsworth is a longtime commercial litigation attorneys. Both Mango and Ellsworth are first-time candidates from suburban Pittsburgh.

Wagner headed into May with $2.2 million in the bank, more than Mango’s $1.6 million and Ellsworth’s $410,000. Wolf spent $1.5 million in April, as his campaign began airing TV ads, and he reported $14 million in the bank heading into May.

Spending in the campaign has yet to approach Pennsylvania’s record for a primary. In 2014, four Democratic primary candidates reported spending a combined $36 million, including almost $15 million by Wolf.

Wagner and Mango were again their biggest contributors in April.

Wagner’s donations to himself in the month topped $360,000 when including his in-kind contributions such as for air travel and advertising. Wagner’s total spending since he began running last year has exceeded $12 million, including more than $1.5 million in his own in-kind contributions.

Mango gave himself at least $200,000 in cash in April and raised $335,000 total, although $50,000 of that was from a private equity executive who converted an earlier campaign loan into a campaign contribution.

Mango’s total spending passed $7.5 million, while Ellsworth has spent more than $560,000 and just began airing her first TV ads.