While most Region residents probably have lost a few bucks at the boats over the past 20 years, ultimately they still are way ahead, thanks to taxes and other distributions paid by the casinos to local governments.
Between admission taxes, wagering taxes, property taxes and local development agreements, Lake County governments have reaped a whopping $1.4 billion in payments from the four casinos since 1996, according to state records.
“It’s been wonderful for Hammond,” said Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. “It’s kept our city alive.”
And Blue Chip Casino, in LaPorte County, has pumped $302 million into Michigan City and the rest of that county’s local government coffers.
The payments to local governments begin the moment an individual enters the gaming area of either Hammond’s Horseshoe Casino, East Chicago’s Ameristar Casino, the two Majestic Star casino boats in Gary or Blue Chip.
Porter County doesn’t host a casino. Its voters disapproved of the gaming operations in a 1993 referendum.
Casinos pay a $3 admission tax each time someone walks through their turnstiles.
If that same person leaves the gaming floor to eat in a restaurant and later comes back, the casino pays another $3.
The three Lake County casino communities get $1 from each admission tax payment; Lake County gets $1; the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority gets 9 cents; and the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy gets 1 cent.
The remaining 90 cents is used by the state to support the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, the Indiana State Fair and the Division of Mental Health and Addiction.
That all adds up to a lot of money, as the five casinos in total often notch more than 800,000 admissions per month.
Where the money goes
Since 2006, the three casino cities and Lake County each have paid $3.5 million a year from their admission tax revenue to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
That money has been used for dozens of quality-of-life and economic development projects in Lake and Porter counties.
Among them are improvements to Gary/Chicago International Airport, construction of Hammond’s Wolf Lake Pavilion, flood control on the Little Calumet River, lakefront parks in Whiting and Portage, East Chicago neighborhood revitalization, and public transit enhancements.
RDA CEO Bill Hanna estimates the $211 million invested by the RDA in the past decade — using casino admission tax revenue, $3.5 million a year from Porter County’s income tax and $10 million in annual state funding — has attracted $450 million in additional private and public investment, with a total economic impact of more than $1.1 billion.
“The projects have been very impactful, and you can see evidence of it,” Hanna said. “I think the money has been used very wisely to reposition us for a different economic outlook.”
“Of course, we’re now talking about the West Lake (Corridor of the South Shore Line), which is significant for Northwest Indiana in terms of accessing jobs in Chicago,” he said.
In LaPorte County, $66 million of the Blue Chip admission and wagering tax receipts has gone to LaPorte County, $228 million to Michigan City and $8 million to the LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Hammond, East Chicago and Gary also receive a quarter of the state’s revenue from wagering taxes imposed on bets placed at their casinos, as well as annual payments from local development agreements each city negotiated independently with its casino.
In 2015, those revenues, prior to mandatory distributions, totaled $40 million for Hammond, $21 million for East Chicago and $12 million for Gary, according to the State Budget Agency and Indiana Gaming Commission.
The revenue difference among the cities stems from the popularity of their casinos: Hammond’s Horseshoe is the most successful casino in the state; Ameristar in East Chicago typically sees more gaming action than Gary’s Majestic Star.
All three cities primarily have used their casino revenues to improve roads and other infrastructure, sometimes for the first time in more than a century. Streetlights, parks, sidewalks and marinas also have been updated.
McDermott said Hammond has been able to fully rebuild 65 percent of its 300 miles of streets and alleys in the past two decades, and effectively reduce home basement flooding, without having to charge extra taxes on vehicle owners as Portage, Valparaiso, Crown Point and Merrillville recently decided to do.
Lake County’s most populous city also has used casino funds to provide college tuition scholarships under its College Bound program.
Those scholarships are worth $10,500 a year to the children of Hammond residents who meet academic qualifications and agree to perform up to 40 hours of community service.
“Without gaming revenue, we would never even be able to dream about having a program like College Bound,” McDermott said.
Similarly, East Chicago has spent a portion of its gaming revenue on college scholarships, distributed through the Foundations of East Chicago, as well as supporting numerous charitable organizations in the community.
Mayor Anthony Copeland said prior to his taking office five years ago, East Chicago relied on casino funds to shore up its general fund budget.
But through targeted spending cuts and select layoffs, the city now is living within its means and investing its gaming money in roads and other infrastructure, he said.
“Some of the local communities around here now are implementing the wheel tax. By us having the casino dollars come in, and being real frugal with those dollars, we’re not going to pass a wheel tax,” Copeland said.
“We’re going to use gaming dollars to get more money from the state to do local road projects.”
Cash-strapped Gary still is relying on gaming revenue to support ordinary city spending. The City Council also recently approved a wheel tax on Gary vehicle owners.
In general, Gary has less freedom to spend casino dollars, because most of its current and future gaming income is pledged to pay debts on the construction of the $45 million Steel Yard minor league baseball stadium, the city’s public safety facility and improvements to the Genesis Convention Center.
Likewise, Lake County often uses gaming revenue to balance its budget and cover extraordinary costs, such as indigent defendant expenses for a recent death penalty trial.
For many years, casino tax receipts saved Lake County residents from having to pay a county income tax, which only was enacted in 2013 amid mounting pressure from Gov. Mike Pence and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to end the holdout.
The county also is required by law to distribute about $3 million a year of its gaming collections to the 16 Lake municipalities that do not have casino gambling.