Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Forest Park anymore

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By Nona Tepper

If you haven't heard, the Forest Park Review is fact-checking every campaign flier this election season, in an effort to inform voters. Keep in touch: ntepper@wjinc.com or jill@oakpark.com

Flier Name: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Forest Park anymore…"

Specs: 8 ½-by-11, glossy, two-sided

Submitted to the Forest Park Review: Oct. 9

The first side of the flier features a yellow-brick road background, with pictures of storefronts of the Golden Steer and O'Sullivans Public House, both of which offer video gaming. It offers a few claims:

1)    "Unlike other towns, Forest Park prohibits pop-up video gaming cafes. Only established businesses may be granted a gaming license" TRUE

The village ordinance specifies that only establishments that hold a local liquor license, fraternal organizations and veterans organizations that have been operating for at least a year are valid for the class V video gaming local liquor license.

2)    "Forest Park restaurant and bar owners support village policy against outdoor gaming signs and have pledged to never display gaming signs or banners" TRUE, BUT…

Twelve bar owners have signed an agreement that states "we will abide by the spirit of the ordinance that bans video gaming signs regardless of any future legal decisions, and we will remain committed to keeping Forest Park Beautiful!" Bar owners from Healy's Westside, O'Sullivan's Public House, Beacon Pub, Duffy's, Blueberry Hill, Doc Ryan's Bar & Grill, R Place, Slainte, Murphy's, Mugsy's, The Golden Steer and Fat Duck signed the agreement.

Attorneys Nick Peppers and Thomas Bastian, of the Storino, Romello and Durkin law firm that represents the village, did not respond to interview requests.

Brendan Healey, partner at the Chicago-based Mandell Menkes LLC law firm, who specializes in First Amendment cases related to video gaming advertising, said a video gaming sign ban would likely not hold up in court, even if bar owners have pledged not to put up signs and agree when they receive their liquor license that they will respect all village ordinances.

"Obviously they can agree to do whatever they want, but if somebody were to want to put up a sign, I think they would have a strong argument that it's First Amendment protected speech," Healey said. "I think the bar owner would have strong argument that he or she has the right to advertise lawful activity taking place in the bar. Commercial speech is entitled to a lower level of First Amendment protection, but it is not unprotected and the state does not have the unfettered right to restrict commercial speech."

3)    A) "Licensed Video Gaming hasn't changed the look of Forest Park…" NO COMMENT

How do you define "look"? This statement is not detailed enough for the Review to fact-check.

B) "…but it has brought in $300,000 in new revenue to the Village." MOSTLY TRUE

As of Sept. 17, the total amount the village has made from video gaming is $287,097, according to data provided by the village of Forest Park, which includes all license fees, permits and the village's share of the terminal income.

In fiscal year 2019, which runs from May 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019, the village has so far earned $104,035 from video gaming.

In fiscal year 2018, which ran from May 1, 2017 to April 30, 2018, the village earned $165,141 from video gaming. In fiscal year 2017, which ran from May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017, the village earned $17,921 from video gaming.

4)    "More revenue supports police officers, fire fighters and public works programs without relying on higher property taxes" MISLEADING

Property taxes cover less than 20 percent of the village's revenue, with the remaining funds coming from sales taxes, fees and grants. The village levied the full amount it can for property taxes in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the calendar years gambling has been legal in the village, said Tim Gillian, village administrator. The village is subject to the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, which limits property tax levy increases to 5 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is lower.

"We have no ability to tell them to raise [property taxes] or lower them. That said, the county gives us a finite amount of money each year and any year that I have revenue from someplace else, then, of course, we rely on that revenue," Gillian said.

At the village council meeting on Dec. 18, 2017, Letitia Olmstead, village finance director, noted that half the village's property tax levy goes toward pension obligations.

The ordinance allowing video gaming is silent on how revenue the village receives from video gaming must be used. Video gaming money received goes into the village's General Fund, which funds "basic services," according to the 2017 auditor's report.

5)    "Video gaming has allowed local businesses to hire new employees, increase salaries and make improvement on their buildings." TRUE, BUT…

Ronald Milchhoefer Jr., who co-owns R Place with his father, said he's used the revenue from video gaming to pay his bills, property taxes and do some long-overdue maintenance to 1527 Harlem Ave. Namely, he bought all new bar stools, seal coated and stripped the parking lot, replaced the mortar joints in the building and more. From December 2016 to October 2018, R Place earned $81,303 from video gaming, according to data obtained from the Illinois Gaming Board on Oct. 15.

"I was able to take care of a few long-time employees, pay them some more than I was, I also hired new employees—two in the kitchen and one extra bartender—and a lot of other little things. It's been good, it's been a long time coming, we hadn't had the extra money to do things like that," he said.

It is impossible to know and verify how every private business owner with video gaming in their establishment uses the revenue they receive from the practice.

SENT BY: Let Forest Park Grow-Vote No, which is a ballot initiative committee established Aug. 22 with the aim of supporting licensed video gaming in the village.

James Watts, owner of O'Sullivan's Public House and the bar owner who brought the local battle over video gaming to the state Supreme Court, is listed as its chairperson. Let Forest Park Grow's headquarters is listed as 545 Beloit Ave., a residential property Watts owns, according to property records.

The group has received $59,200 in funds, according to its most recent quarterly earnings report filed to the Illinois State Board Elections on Oct. 15.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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