Nitro considers split from county over smoking ban

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If the city of Nitro can’t change the minds of Kanawha County health officials, then perhaps it can change the county where the health officials reside.

That’s the latest option being considered by Nitro officials who want to make the city’s most prominent business exempt from a county smoking ban. Officials at Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center say the ban, which started in July 2008, is bad for business.

Nitro, which straddles the border between Kanawha and Putnam counties, is looking at the possibility of cutting ties with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and linking up with health officials in Putnam County, where a similar smoking ban was rescinded two years ago.

The Putnam County Health Department already has responsibility for the one-third or so of Nitro that lies within county borders, and city officials say a complete switchover makes sense.

“We’re serving two masters right now,” Nitro City Recorder Rita Cox said.

The plan, which Nitro officials began discussing this month and plan to present to the Putnam County Commission in October, wouldn’t affect other areas of town life administered by Kanawha County. Students who go to class in Kanawha schools would continue to do so. The idea is simply to switch health departments, and officials are candid about the reasoning.

“They allowcheap cigarettes in Putnam County,” Nitro Mayor Rusty Casto said.

Nitro officials have tried other strategies to assist the casino, which employs about 800 people, in evading the smoking ban. Last month, the City Council passed an ordinance allowing smoking in designated areas at the track, but the ordinance won’t take effect until after a court steps in.

The new proposal has raised eyebrows even among observers familiar with a city whose distinctive political culture has in recent years included a dispute over a World War I-era tank and allegations that one city councilman impersonated another while sending nude photos over the Internet.

“I don’t think it’s a logical or plausible thing to do,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said. “Why Putnam County? Why not Wirt County or Mingo County? Do you get to pick which county has jurisdiction over you?”

State law seems to permit municipalities in more than one county to choose which county’s health board has jurisdiction, if there’s no municipal health board. Officials are seeking clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

If the law allows it, a bigger question, though, is whether Putnam County will.

“There would have to be a great, great, great advantage for the Putnam County Health Department to do this, and right now, I don’t see any advantage,” said Jackie Fleshman, administrator of Putnam’s health department.

Taking on all of Nitro would involve significant costs, Fleshman said. Putnam officials have done little more than talk on the phone with a Nitro councilman, although they are expecting a delegation from the city at the Oct. 20 commission meeting.

The plan is a sign of Nitro officials’ seriousness about helping Tri-State at a time when large taxpayers in the city are hurting. Nitro recently saw two car dealerships shut down, with a third hovering on the brink of closure.

“That’s a big chunk of money,” Casto said. “Tri-State is real important here, and their business is down.”

Representatives from the track, which is owned by Hartman and Tyner Inc., didn’t return calls seeking comment, but an analysis of financial figures filed with the State Lottery Commission shows that Tri-State’s business has been slumping, at least in the area of video lottery machines, where the bulk of revenue comes from.

In fiscal year 2008, before the smoking ban, the racetrack grossed $40,602 per machine. In fiscal year 2009, with the smoking ban in place, the track grossed $35,816 per machine, a drop of nearly 12 percent. On average, its gross revenues have been declining by 10 percent per machine since the ban took effect.

None of the state’s three other racetracks have seen such a decline, and Tri-State is the only track whose county health board does not exempt at least parts of the property from a smoking ban.

Tri-State also has significantly fewer machines than the racetracks in Chester, Wheeling and Charles Town. During the fiscal year that ended in June, Tri-State’s weekly average of machines in use was 1,437 — which is 500 fewer than the casino in Wheeling. The track in Chester had more than 3,000 machines in weekly use, meanwhile, and Charles Town had more than 5,000.

Kanawha’s Carper doesn’t believe the smoking ban is entirely to blame. Tri-State was the last of the three casinos to add table games, 11 months after poker started at Chester and Wheeling, and a planned 250-room hotel that followed table games was first delayed by the recession, then scaled back to 150 rooms when ground was finally broken in June, more than a year after plans were first announced.

“Tri-State has made all kinds of threats and said they’re going to go out of business,” Carper said, “but there’s an old saying: When you point the finger, you’ve got four more pointing back at you.”


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