Bingo! Act 66 revision loosens restrictions for VFWs, churches, fire halls
Collinsburg Volunteer Fire Company president Frank Backstrom remembers when firefighters were able to support themselves on the money they earned from hosting bingo.
Then along came the casinos.
"(Casinos) took away all our business," Backstrom said of his department near West Newton. "Our bingo (attendance) has dropped. I wouldn't say real significantly, but it has dropped.
"People only have so much money to spend on leisure, and they're going to go to the casinos."
He said updates to the state's bingo law, known as Act 66, may help with that.
Act 66 increases the prize limits for bingo games, removes restrictions on the number of days a licensed association may conduct bingo games and eliminates the two-year waiting periods for volunteer fire companies that merge or consolidate services, provided that at least one entity held a valid and current license prior to the merger.
"If Act 66 would allow us to increase our prizes and increase different games, that may be able to help us who are still in business to be able to compete with some of the casinos," Backstrom said.
The company hosts bingo games every Thursday and Saturday. It has five early bird games with a prize of $50 per game; 20 regular games with a prize of $100 per game; and five specials. The jackpot is $2,200.
Act 66 was signed into law in December. It was introduced by state Rep. Kate Klunk (R-Hanover), who is a bingo player.
Klunk said the bill will help associations of all sizes.
"All associations will benefit from the removal of restrictions on advertising," she said. "They will now be able to advertise their specific prizes in a variety of media, including newspapers and social media. This will help both small and large associations with increasing attendance. Larger prizes will also entice more players."
Organizations and fire companies throughout Western Pennsylvania host bingo games. Two are Brackenridge Legion Post 226 and the Tarentum Elks.
Tim McCue is one of six people overseeing bingo operations at the Brackenridge legion.
McCue said the increased prize limits could potentially benefit the legion when it hosts super bingos, where prize totals are higher than regular bingo games.
"When we have a super bingo, we can offer more money, which will bring in more people, but as far as our daily bingos, it's not going to help us," he said.
The legion hosts bingo every Thursday. Super bingos are held only a few times a year.
"This is probably going to affect some places that (have) a much higher population density than we do like Philadelphia, Harrisburg, those places," McCue said.
Bob Morrow is chairman of bingo for the Tarentum Elks.
He said it's nice that bingo prize limits have been increased, but his organization won't be raising theirs because not enough people come to their games.
"If you do not get the people in there to play bingo, you can't afford to pay that kind of money out," Morrow said. "We're going very well the way we're going now; we're not going to change anything."
The Elks host bingo every Wednesday and have an average of 50 attendees. They play 16 games with a prize of $50 per game, and four specials with a prize of $75 a game. Their jackpot is a guaranteed $500 giveaway.
"We don't go big," Morrow said.
Despite updates to the law, the men said their organizations won't be increasing the number of days they offer bingo.
McCue said there aren't enough volunteers to run more games at the legion. Backstrom said the volunteer firemen who run the bingo games at the fire company have other obligations. "They have to train to be firefighters," he said.
Still, the organizations said bingo is what keeps them running.
"Without bingos there's no way for us to survive," Backstrom said. "There's grant monies out there and there are ways of us getting money through the state, through the federal government, but that's limited also."
McCue said the legion would likely close if it didn't offer bingo. He said bingo games draw people to the legion so it can sell them strip tickets, which are regulated by the state's Local Option Small Games of Chance Act. Strip tickets are how the legion makes all its money.
"Typically, we hardly ever make any money on bingo," McCue said. "This would be true of almost anyone. Where we make our money is on small games of chance. You need bingo in order to sell the tickets — they're dependent on each other."
Small Games of Chance include pull-tab games, punch boards, raffles, daily drawings, weekly drawings, 50-50 drawings, race night games obtained from distributors licensed with the department and pools — excluding sports pools, which are prohibited by federal law, according to the Department of Revenue.
The fire department also makes its money on small games of chance tickets.
"We make nothing on bingo — nothing," Backstrom said.
The Small Games of Chance Act requires club licensees who make more than $40,000 in small games of chance sales to donate 60 percent of their earnings to public interest purposes, such as scholarships or nonprofits; 40 percent can be used for club licensee expenses. Fire departments are exempt from that, Backstrom said.
"The people who have to do the 60/40 split are the people who have clubs," Backstrom said. "As a fire company, we don't have to do the 60/40 split."
Bingo falls under the state's Bingo Law and is separate from the Local Option Small Games of Chance Act, Klunk said. There is no requirement for an association to donate a portion of its bingo proceeds.
Klunk said the ways organizations raise funds differ. Some rely just on bingo, and others rely on just small games of chance.
Oftentimes, she said, associations will have licenses for both and use them to boost revenue.
"Without the bingo game, the association would likely not have potential players of small games of chance," she said.
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.