By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
After an animated debate around the Coaldale council table, second and third readings of the Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) Bylaw 840-C-02-22 passed on Feb. 28 during a regular council meeting. KC’s pub owner, Ken Schmidt said getting the bylaw passed has been, “been a six-year struggle,” and added the decision to allow VLTs back into Coaldale, “has been a long time coming.”
The issue has been on and off the table a number of times over the past five years and has proved to be a polarizing agenda item for many residents and council. The Town previously conducted a plebiscite in 2017 to collect feedback from the community with respect to allowing VLTs back into Coaldale. Director of Growth and Investment for the Town of Coaldale, Cameron Mills presented council with a summary of the discussion points of the bylaw to date. During the Jan. 10 regular council meeting, a motion was passed to direct administrations to bring back a draft bylaw for council’s consideration, which was subsequently presented during the Jan. 24 meeting. First reading passed, and following this, council held a public hearing on Feb. 14 and received, “a tremendous amount of correspondence,” during this time. For some municipalities, VLTs have remained a controversial issue since the late 1990s, when the provincial government gave the decision-making authority to municipalities as to whether VLTs would be permitted. “There might have been 10 municipalities in the province that voted at that time to get rid of them,” explained Schmidt. Lacombe, another municipality that voted to ban VLTs in 1997, also revisited the issue in 2021. Lacombe council ultimately passed a bylaw which would allow VLTs back into the town, late last year.
During the Feb. 28 Coaldale council meeting, Coun. Bill Chapman proposed that council table the second and third reading, “until we have a plebiscite,” adding the results of the plebiscite should determine the whether council is authorized to hold second and third readings of the VLT bylaw.
Coun. Jason Beekman spoke against the tabling bylaw, citing the large volume correspondence already received to date on the issue. “I believe there is already a lot of information out there (and) I believe we have enough to work with.” He added, “let’s make a decision. We have all discussed this enough. We’ve all had enough correspondence with residents in regards to this.”
Coun. Lisa Reis echoed this sentiment, adding the decision would likely leave some people dissatisfied, regardless of the outcome. “This is such a touchy topic and no matter what way we vote, not everyone is going to be happy, there are going to be people not happy about it. I do not agree with tabling it again, she said.
Deputy Mayor Jacen Abrey expressed he was in favour of tabling the motion to conduct another plebiscite, “I believe this gives the transparency. If we go back to the previous two plebiscites where citizens voted marginally to keep them (VLTs) out, this will show we are listening as a council to what the citizens say.” Council held a public hearing two weeks earlier during the Feb. 14 regular council meeting. Five speakers presented in favour of the bylaw, and one against.
Some of the concerns brought up during the public hearing highlighted concerns for a municipal policy that restricted businesses’ ability to pursue legal revenue streams. Mayor Jack van Rijn posited whether the municipality accepting grants generated by gaming revenue was “hypocritical”, and said the Town accepts grant money funded by gambling proceeds. Mayor van Rijn added, “over $6 million,” has been awarded to over 200 organizations in southern Alberta since 2012.
Beekman, said, “there are an incredible amount of VLTs just 10 minutes away. Why are we fighting so hard to keep this ban? As a council, we have also committed to Coaldale being open for business and yet we are willing to impose an unnecessary regulatory burden on our businesses.”
Many residents who expressed opposition to the VLT bylaw cited concerns of addiction to gambling.
Schmidt said business owners with VLTs do, “have a certain responsibility. However, with addiction, that’s a personal thing. I can’t tell you, you shouldn’t be addicted to whatever it is, but for me to say to somebody, ‘I think you play these machines too much. You shouldn’t come here anymore.’ I can’t do that. As with everything, it’s up to the person, and added, “now the community has the choice. If they don’t come in or even if they come in and don’t play them, it’s their choice.”
Coun. Beekman countered, “if addiction is our focus, then we should look deeper at how the Town can aid and support recovery methods within our community, and that’s something I believe to be far more effective than banning one form of gambling.” Following this, motions to approve second and third readings of Bylaw 842-R-01-22 were both passed 5-2, with Coun. Chapman and Deputy Mayor Jacen Abrey opposing.
Initially, eligible venues in Coaldale can apply for three machines per establishment, with the possibility for more in the future. Ultimately, it is up to the government of Alberta to determine if the machines are meeting the usage requirements to remain profitable for the Province, if these standards are not met, the province could choose to remove some or all lower-performing machines. Although there are no firm dates, Coaldale residents can expect VLTs back in town as early as May 2022.