Proposed update to state gaming rules could offer relief to Pa.’s fire companies, nonprofits
This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.
BELLEFONTE — Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire companies rely on raffles and bingo to stay open, but state law prohibits them from accepting cashless payments for these small games of chance, a condition that limits their fundraising abilities and has some of them considering breaking the rules.
Several lawmakers have proposed legislation to fix the issue, saying the provision is outdated and prevents these groups from bringing in more money to keep the lights on.
When the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person events, many fire companies shifted their fundraisers online and accepted cashless payments. Their efforts were successful, but some companies were told by their county treasurer that they could be violating their small games of chance license, and could face fines, or lose their permit altogether.
Part of the decision to go online might’ve stemmed from confusion over action in Harrisburg.
Lawmakers in the state House passed temporary allowances so these groups could accept payments via Venmo, PayPal, and Cash App during the health emergency. The proposal, however, was never approved by the state Senate.
Despite the law prohibiting credit and debit card payments for small games of chance, some nonprofits — including fire companies — still do it.
Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, cited several Facebook groups promoting fire company raffles that accept cashless payments and noted that some fire companies sell tickets on their websites and accept credit and debit cards.
Jeff Shaffer, president of the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Company in Huntingdon County, told Spotlight PA that he’s had members encourage him to start accepting credit and debit card payments for their bingo games, revenue from which covers most of the company’s $300,000 annual budget.
But even as the company faces rising utility bills, expensive fuel, and the cost of replacing aging equipment, he’s unwilling to take the risk. The consequences would be “devastating,” Shaffer told Spotlight PA.
“Just because everybody else is jumping off a bridge doesn’t mean we have to,” he added.
Shaffer said all it takes is one person — maybe someone who misunderstood the rules of a game and missed out on a prize — to report the fire company to the county treasurer or State Police, and the company could face fines of up to $2,000 for repeated violations, a suspension, or lose the license altogether.
But if an expansion allowing credit and debit cards became state law, Shaffer thinks it would boost the company’s donations.
State Sen. Devlin Robinson (R., Allegheny) and state Rep. Ryan Warner (R., Fayette) have reintroduced legislation to update the law, including bills that would allow eligible groups to accept credit and debit card payments for raffle tickets, as well as conduct them online through Facebook Live or another platform. The bills would still enforce the permitting process and require verification that the person purchasing the ticket is at least 18.
Existing law doesn’t directly address whether raffles may be streamed online, but it does say they must take place live and in-person with printed tickets. Players also must have the option to attend in person.
Robinson called the state’s current law outdated.
“The world that we’re living in right now is becoming more cashless,” he told Spotlight PA. “People are running in and out of their busy lives. They don’t have time to stop at the local fire hall or VFW to purchase a ticket,” he added, referring to Veterans of Foreign Wars lodges.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association hasn’t taken a position on the proposed legislation. Berks County District Attorney John Adams, the association’s communications director, said the group might oppose the use of credit cards because they could harm people with gambling addictions.
Debit cards might be OK, he told Spotlight PA, because they’re tied to a bank account.
The Howard Volunteer Fire Company in Centre County gets most of the money for its more than $120,000 yearly operating budget at the annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ fall festival.
Volunteers collect donations throughout the event, also selling hats and T-shirts at a booth, which can be paid for with cash or card, Mark Ott, a company member, said.
But at a nearby table where people can buy raffle tickets, they can only use cash.
It’s “cumbersome,” Ott told Spotlight PA. Most attendees are unaware of the rule, and look confused when they’re directed to a nearby ATM, he said.
Ozog told Spotlight PA that expanding the law to include credit and debit card payments would offer relief for fire companies, which have long warned about a volunteer crisis and financial stress straining operations.
He said that getting donations and finding people to join fire companies in rural communities with shrinking and aging populations is even more challenging. The risk, he said, is that there’s no one there to answer an emergency call “on the worst day” of a person’s life.
Even if the law gets updated, accepting credit and debit cards without fear of fines or a revoked license won’t solve the structural financial problems that emergency responders face, Ozog said. Donations aren’t guaranteed, and state and federal grants are competitive.
“Fire companies just need more money because the cost of everything is going up,” he said.