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It used to be, you might discover help for problem gambling on the back of a bus.

That was back when Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County had money to buy roving ads for its gambling recovery program. The bus ads have been gone for years. So has the money to get the word out that it is one of the few agencies that can help.

“We don’t even have the resources to let people know that the agency is here,” said Marlene Schillinger, president of Jewish Family Service, “that if gambling’s a problem, we have the resources to help.”

The state makes a killing off of gambling – funneling billions from the lottery and millions from casinos to balance school budgets and plug state budget gaps. But as the state has developed its own reliance on gambling revenue, it has tossed a piddling toward helping those most vulnerable to the games it promotes. As the state’s take has increased, funding to help problem gamblers has been subject to the game of chance we call the Albany budget. If the state was on a roll, money was set aside for gambling treatment, education and prevention. When times were bad, that money was cut.

There has been no dedicated funding source for helping the state’s problem gamblers – until now. The state’s casino expansion plan for the first time will create a permanent fund for gambling help and will set up a list of those who seek to ban themselves from the new casinos.

“We’re very optimistic right now,” said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. “Probably more so than we’ve been in a long, long time.”

At $500 a slot machine and table game in the new casinos, the state estimates there will be at least $4.7 million a year for problem gambling programs.

Sounds good, right? It will place New York toward the top of the list of state-funded gambling prevention efforts. But look at it this way: It’s just about $75,000 for each county. Compared to the annual lottery take, it’s less than a tenth of a percent of the state’s gambling revenue. Or look at Ontario, where 2 percent of slots revenue is set aside for problem gambling programs – about $53.9 million in 2011.

John Coppola, executive director of New York Alcoholism & Substance Providers, sees the new state funding as a start. But, he said, just creating a media campaign in New York to reach problem gamblers could cost that much.

“There are lots of ways to eat up $4.7 million very quickly,” Coppola said.

Most people can gamble without problem. But for a sad few, it can tear apart families, lead to bankruptcies and even push people to suicide.

If you’re still wondering why you should care, look at any casino at midday. There are an awful lot of senior citizens in front of slot machines.

New Yorkers have chosen gambling as the latest way to buoy state spending. The approach the state takes now to address problem gambling will determine the legacy of that decision. Do we want to take advantage of the state’s most vulnerable residents? Or will New York make a real commitment to helping those for whom gambling is a mental illness?

The new dedicated funding means there’s a chance New York could make a difference in helping problem gamblers. Hey, you never know.

email: djgee@buffnews.com