Local MPP Lisa MacLeod held a news conference at the Rideau-Carleton Raceway to announce she has asked the Ontario ombudsman to study the province’s plans to expand gambling.
Standing on a podium in front of a row of standardbred horses, watched by a cluster of drivers wearing their colours, the member of provincial parliament for Nepean-Carleton attacked the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation for having an “incoherent plan” for adding new casinos, a plan that would threaten the jobs of 1,000 employees at the racetrack if slot machines were transferred to a new casino downtown.
“There is an overriding frustration with OLG and how they are treating municipalities,” said MacLeod. “This isn’t just about Ottawa; it’s a public-policy issue provincewide.”
Joining MacLeod in the barn were Senator Bob Runciman and Ottawa city councillors Doug Thompson and Scott Moffatt.
Ottawa council voted last week to put the city on OLG’s list of municipalities interested in hosting a new OLG casino. The 19-5 vote was marked by a high level of confusion and frustration, which Moffatt said reflects bad planning and poor consultation by the provincial corporation. As an example, Moffatt said that although councillors and residents are clearly interested in the possibility of putting the new casino at Rideau-Carleton Raceway, which already has slot machines, he has little confidence OLG will consider the raceway option.
“I’m getting no emails from residents that say ‘Close the raceway,’” said Moffatt. “We need the OLG to listen to residents and do what’s right.”
MacLeod has raised questions about the plan in the past, most recently with a motion in the legislature in August calling on the auditor-general to review the OLG’s plans. MacLeod met provincial ombudsman Andre Marin on Monday, the same day Premier Dalton McGuinty resigned and prorogued the legislature. MacLeod says that move eliminates all the usual “levers of oversight” — including legislative committees and question period, making a review of OLG’s plans by the ombudsman even more important before a final decision is made.
“The ombudsman did have a meeting with Ms. MacLeod. She has also sent a letter outlining her concerns and we’re reviewing it now,” said Linda Williamson, the ombudsman’s director of communications. At this point, Williamson added, “it’s not an investigation, it’s an assessment of the issue.”
MacLeod’s letter asks the ombudsman to look at two specific questions: Does the OLG have a “coherent process” to deal with municipalities, and has it done a “mental health and addiction analysis that is connected to its current plan to expand gambling in Ontario?”
The OLG has a detailed expansion plan that has been approved by the province and “is absolutely coherent,” according to spokesman Tony Bitonti.
“The government adopted our recommendations for our modernization plan back in March,” said Bitonti, adding that the commission also has “a very comprehensive, gold-standard responsible gambling program that will be transferred to the private sector operators” under the expansion.
Bitonti said the OLG funnels $40 million of its revenue to responsible gambling councils and treatment programs, through the ministry of health, and spends about $13 million on public education and training staff to recognize the signs of problem gambling in customers.
Bitonti said the slots at racetracks program, known as SARP, formulated in 1998, ties the OLG to facilities that in some cases are far out of town and therefore far from customers, at a time when the OLG’s aim is to bring gambling opportunities closer to its customers.
“That was really limiting to us in terms of attracting new customers and getting the most out of our business,” said Bitonti, noting that the agreements with the racetracks expire in March 2013.
Runciman, a former provincial Tory cabinet minister and longtime MPP for Leeds-Grenville, spoke in support of MacLeod’s request for an investigation. He called the cancellation of the slots program “an unprecedented attack on the agricultural economy,” and noted that 1,000 employees — including 250 horsemen and more than 250 OLG employees — all face job losses if the track is forced to close.
Garth Henry, a veterinarian who works with many of the horses at the raceway, said the prospect of horses being euthanized “is not an empty threat — it’s already happening.” Henry said he knows of 14 horses sent for slaughter last week. The yearling sale prices have fallen well below the cost of production since the slots cancellations were announced, Henry said, making it very difficult for most owners to keep their horses.
“Owning these horses has gone from something that offers minimal return, but you do it because you love it, to a money-losing proposition,” said Henry.
Owners can’t place their horses with new owners, according to Henry, because most of them aren’t trained for riding, and the annual cost of maintaining a horse properly is at least $5,000.