Conn. casinos seek break on paying for security

MICHAEL MELIA - Associated Press
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In this March 3, 2006 photo, patrons crowd poker tables at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. A dispute is brewing over the cost of security charged by the state of Connecticut for the two tribal-run properties Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. The state assigns teams of troopers and other agents to patrol resort areas that receive tens of thousands of daily visitors. Officials from both tribes say advances in their own security capabilities have reduced the need for help from the state. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A dispute is brewing over the security bill for two of the largest casinos in the United States, tribal-run properties in Connecticut where the state assigns teams of troopers and other agents to patrol resort areas that receive tens of thousands of daily visitors.

The American Indian tribes that must reimburse the state for the services of police, liquor control officers and auditors are questioning whether such a heavy state presence is necessary. The assessments have risen gradually over the past three years to $7.3 million for the Foxwoods Resort Casino and $6.8 million for Mohegan Sun for the last fiscal year.

Talks opened last month between the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who took office this year, and tribal officials, who say he is the first governor in years to welcome a review of state-provided services.

The casinos, which operate on sovereign tribal land in rural southeastern Connecticut, are required to cover security expenses under their compacts with the state. But tribal authorities say their own security capabilities have evolved significantly since those agreements were signed in the 1990s.

"There are some efforts that are duplicative in nature with our own police force and the state police here," said Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff for external affairs for the Mohegan Tribe, which owns Mohegan Sun.

The casinos are looking to cut costs like other businesses affected by the weak economy, said state Rep. Stephen Dargan, the chairman of the House public safety and security committee. He said the casinos have been good business partners with the state and he is pleased the administration is hearing out their concerns.

"The two tribes, with the economy down and their revenue down too, they're trying to react to the downsizing of discretionary funds and the increased threat of competition from nearby states," said Dargan, a West Haven Democrat.

Connecticut is not alone in working with casinos that are struggling with a slump in gaming revenue. In New Jersey, where Atlantic City casinos have been battered by the downturn, laws passed this year cut regulations and absolved casinos of having to pay for things like a state inspector on the premises around the clock.

The services provided by Connecticut are driven by the volume of people and activity at the casinos, said Andrew McDonald, the general counsel for the governor. He declined to provide details of the negotiations, but he said they have been productive.

"We certainly have a common interest in ensuring the casinos are run efficiently and that the public is well served by the regulatory and public protection agencies that function out of those casinos," he said.

The two casinos rank among the biggest in North America — Mohegan Sun posted $719 million in slot-machine revenue alone in the last fiscal year, compared with $650 million for Foxwoods — and few venues in Connecticut rival their level of security.

State police have special units inside each casino that patrol around the clock, responding to thefts, assaults and other crimes inside the gaming areas and elsewhere on tribal lands. Five liquor control agents each are assigned to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Government auditors are also involved in reviewing the books at the casinos, which contribute 25 percent of slot-machine revenue to the state general fund.

The troopers help with law enforcement issues that would arise any place with such large crowds but also bring expertise on gambling-related crimes, said a state police spokesman, Lt. J. Paul Vance.

"Our folks are busy," Vance said. "They conduct comprehensive investigations. There have been cases we have worked in the past that take significant amounts of time and expertise."

Bunnell, however, said the tribal police force fulfills a very similar role, and they patrol the resort in numbers that far exceed the three state troopers who are on duty on a given shift.

He also said the casino has extensive liquor control measures. In addition to security cameras throughout the resort and special training for employees including pit bosses and dealers, he said the casino has the ability to send a photograph of a drunk person to every distribution point on the site to make sure they are not served more alcohol.

"It's a lot more extensive than you might find in your local bar or grill," he said.

A spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which operates Foxwoods, said they are also concerned about duplication of efforts by security officers as well as auditors. Spokesman Bill Satti said the Mashantuckets have their own gaming commission and internal auditors, and the work of counting and verifying revenue has been made far less cumbersome by advances in technology. He said the tribe is also seeking more detail on assessments that show the cost for police, liquor control and auditors, but do not break down the expenses further.

Like his counterparts at Mohegan Sun, he said the tribe is grateful for the opportunity to discuss its concerns with the new administration. He said a similar effort went nowhere about four years ago.

"The feeling from state at that point was 'Here's the assessment, either pay us or take us to court,'" Satti said.