Inundated

Inundated

Street after street, block after block, Southeast Texas neighborhoods are being inundated by bustling businesses drawing clientele into “legal” gambling dens crammed full of electronic gaming devices commonly referred to as “eight-liners.” These same neighborhoods are also being inundated by an influx of unreported cash money, violent crime, drugs and the unsavory characters that accompany such elements, according to police and municipal officials.

In one Beaumont neighborhood alone, concentrated down to less than a two-mile radius in the Pear Orchard area, roughly a dozen “game rooms” – businesses that solely operate as gaming sites – can be charted. Neighborhood City Council representative Robin Mouton says she despises the effects of these game room enterprises on the community she serves.

“I absolutely hate game rooms,” she said. The businesses, which operate closed-door to the general public at most sites, are without a doubt fostering illegal activity, Mouton added. “I don’t believe they contribute to the growth and welfare of our city, and they’re predominately in the poor areas of town. They’re a hindrance to our community and our city – and you will always see me voting against them.

“I just don’t see anything positive to come from having them in our community.”

Beaumont Mayor Becky Ames agreed with her fellow elected official.

“I’m 100 percent against them,” Ames said of gaming sites cluttering the city. “I do not support game rooms – and I’ve not ever voted for one that I can remember.”

Even without council support, however, more and more game rooms are popping up all over town.

“Down Washington Boulevard is where I’ve seen the most of them,” Ames said of clusters of gaming sites – some legally registered with the city, others not. “Some convenience stores have one or two, some convenience stores with more, then there’s full-blown game rooms.”

As far as the games rooms go, Ames said — “all the legal ones, anyway” — have a Specific Use Permit (SUP) granted by the City Council or were grandfathered in under other ordinances in the city’s charter.

Planning and Community Development Director Chris Boone said the city’s SUP requirement for gaming sites didn’t go into effect until November 2017, and since then very few (if any) have been granted.

“There’s been at least a half-dozen – a couple of them that are, like, 100 machines – ask for permits,” since November, Ames recalls. She did not vote to allow any, and was especially appalled at the request for the 100-game site.

“That’s like a casino,” she said. “We turned them down.”

But according to the city officials, besides code enforcement and enacting city ordinances such as the one requiring SUPs for gaming sites hosting over five machines, very little can be done to combat the proliferation of gaming sites in the city.

Beaumont Police Department’s Special Assignment Unit provided a presentation to the city regarding game rooms while asking for more stringent ordinances that would allow investigators to sanction game rooms that pose a threat to public safety.

According to BPD, the city’s gaming sites must be registered, licensed, display proper signage outside and on machines, maintain game inventory and produce it on demand, pay an occupancy tax, prohibit alcohol if not TABC licensed, and submit to inspection by code enforcement. Additionally, although all ages are permitted to frequent the gaming sites, “persons younger than 12 can only use gaming machines between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. – 12 a.m. Friday through Saturday.” Patrons age 13-17 years old can stay until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

“The state does allow them,” Ames said. “The way we’ve turned them down recently is through planning and zoning – which wouldn’t be regulatory…,” but beefing up ordinances and possibly increasing permitting fees are pretty much the only plans on the immediate horizon for how to address the growing gaming industry in Beaumont.

“We’re working on a new ordinance. …  I know the council instructed the staff to tighten up our ordinance regarding gaming because we are just getting bombarded by them,” Ames said. “The police department, the council, the city manager, the city staff, the legal department, they agree. They want this ordinance to be tightened up, too.”

Proposed changes would call for background checks on employees and limiting hours of operation. Even then, the enforcement tools accessible to officers would be calling in municipal infractions – which is a ticketing event, not an arrest event, the mayor said.

According to City Attorney Tyrone Cooper, who said he is currently working on updating the city’s gaming ordinance to present to council within the month, there’s a great deal of legal “gray area” involved. Simple ordinance updates may be available to the city, but some of the ideas being shopped around city departments to upgrade the ordinance are contingent on what happens with a Fort Worth lawsuit where gaming site owners have sued the city arguing that its against the state constitution to limit their ability to do business. That case is currently on appeal after the city lost in the initial district court ruling.

“There is a state statute in connection to gaming machines,” Cooper said, “so our hands are tied with regard to that.”

And with the lingering Fort Worth case, Cooper said, “We’re waiting to see what happens there.”

As Cooper referenced, pending before Texas’ Second Court of Appeals is litigation that would determine if cities are overstepping the bounds of the law to regulate game rooms unlike any other business operated in the city is being regulated. In “City of Fort Worth (et al) v.. C&D Amusements (et al),” the argument is made that since the state of Texas has determined that game rooms are not inherently illegal enterprises, cities are not free to make that determination outside of the state law, which only allows limited restrictions based on its connection to sexually oriented business, exhibition within 300 feet of a church, school, or hospital, enforcement of an occupancy tax, and “sealed machine” charge collection of up to $5 each.

Anatole Bartnstone, the legal representation for C&D Amusements owner Stephannie Rylie, posited to the appeals court that the regulations placed on the gaming sites were not only a violation of their clients’ “due course of law,” but also in defiance of the state’s amusement statute enacted to establish “comprehensive and uniform statewide regulation.”

State regulations require 8-liner owners to hold licenses under the coin-operated services statute, Chapter 2153 of the Texas Occupations Code, pay annual license fees, and pay occupations taxes per machine. City-imposed regulations such as mandated background checks on employees, special zoning laws, and production of daily cash reports are clearly preemptive and a violation of the game purveyors rights, gaming attorneys argue.

Attorney David Keltner, representing the city of Fort Worth and City Manager David Cooke, offered the legal position that the Local Government Code grants “power to the local governments to regulate eight-liners” and decried the effects of the gaming enterprises on the city while documenting some of the same problems Southeast Texas officials report about the burgeoning businesses.

 

“These machines are associated with illegal gambling and increased crime in and around the areas where..."

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