Taking a chance: Watauga reluctant to gamble
by Scott Nicholson
Last year, Watauga residents spent an average of $78 per person on lottery tickets, well below the state average of $200. However, people still spent $3.1 million for lottery tickets in the county last year, part of a $1.4 billion annual gambling industry run by the state.
A data comparison by the N.C. Justice Center showed the state's poorest counties often had the highest rates of per-capita lottery purchases. In Lenoir County, with 10 percent unemployment and nearly a fourth of all households under the poverty line, the average person spends $424 a year on scratch-off tickets.
The average person in all but two of the 24 most-impoverished counties in the state spends more than $200 a year on lottery tickets, even as revenues are expected to fall, mainly because of the recession.
In Watauga County, overall lottery sales have increased from $1.87 million in 2006 to $2.2 million in 2007, followed by $2.8 million in 2008 and peaking at $3.1 million in 2009.
Lottery sales dropped dramatically last fiscal year to $2.2 million.
That reflects a statewide downturn, as the proceeds earmarked for education spending in North Carolina are projected to fall from $419 million to $402 million at a time when school systems are facing additional budget cuts.
Overall, $2.1 million has gone from local people into the hands of retailers and administrators over the four full years since the lottery has been legalized. Under state law, 8 percent of the proceeds are earmarked for administering the gambling operation and 35 percent of gross sales are returned to the local school system.
There are 17 lottery vendors in the 28607 zip code area and five in the 28605 zip code area. Retailers receive 7 percent of the gross proceeds from their ticket sales but are also responsible for paying out to smaller winners.
Jason Ricker, a clerk at Phil's Citgo in Boone, has been selling lottery tickets since they became legal in 2006. He said big winners are few and far between and his biggest winner was $600.
"Most people just break even," Ricker said. "The guy who won $600 complained because he had to drive to Greensboro or wherever to get it. If I won $600, I'd plop myself in the car with a big grin on my face."
Under state law, winning tickets of $600 or less are paid out by any lottery retailer. Earnings higher than that, up to $99,999.99, can be claimed at the state lottery office via mail, and winnings of six figures or more must be claimed in person.
Richard Lockman, who bought a $1 scratch-off ticket from Ricker Friday, said he had bought maybe five lottery tickets since they became legal. His ticket won him a dollar, which he promptly spent on a second ticket that wasn't a winner.
By law, winners of more than $5,000 are listed as public record. Watauga's biggest winner on record is Bennie Wilson, who won a $100,000 prize at Kangaroo Express No. 141 in February. Wilson has twice won $5,000 prizes.
Connie Greene won $50,000 last year, and has won $5,000 three other times. James Carter won $50,000 in September. Big prizes have amounted to $305,000 in Watauga County since the state adopted the lottery.
Over the first four full years of the lottery, Watauga residents have spent $12.1 million on the lottery, with $5.4 million distributed back in prize winnings. The school system has received $4.6 million in that time for the More at Four program, teaching positions, capital needs and scholarships.
Last year, the lottery proceeds funded scholarships for 203 students, supported 55 slots for 4-year-olds to receive preschool instruction and supported five teaching positions, and also paid for $556,000 in capital improvements.