Hitchcock: City OKs tough new game room rules

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by T.J. Aulds / The Daily News

khou.com

Posted on June 22, 2010 at 7:59 AM

HITCHCOCK, Texas — City commissioners approved an 8-liner ordinance that will require background checks for game room employees, will levy higher fees for game room licenses and the machines, and will open the game rooms to spot inspections by police.

The ordinance, which takes affect July 1, changes Hitchcock’s regulation of game rooms from one of the weakest in the county to one of the toughest.

By coincidence, the ordinance was approved less than two hours after one of the city’s game rooms was robbed.

A key provision of the new ordinance is a $2,000 annual fee for game rooms plus $200 per game machine. That’s $1,000 less than commissioners had planned. They lowered the fee after complaints from game room operators.

The fees are expected to boost city coffers that already take in about $62,000 from the $100-per-machine fee charged under the previous ordinance. A game room with 50 machines would pay $12,000 a year in licensing fees compared to $5,000 under the old ordinance.

All game room owners, managers, employees and even the owners of the buildings and machines will have to submit to annual background checks, according to the ordinance. They will be required to fill out an application, and anyone found with a conviction that could have carried at least a one-year jail sentence within the last 10 years will not be eligible for a license, Police Chief Clay Kennelly said.

That would include people who received deferred adjudication or probation for a Class B misdemeanor of higher. Game room owners also will be responsible for the $100 fee to cover the expense of the employee background checks.

Those background checks go beyond criminal history. The application asks questions about back child support, financial history, tax payment delinquencies and whether the applicant has defaulted on student loans.

Game room employees will be required to wear their new licenses while at work, much like employees of the dog track do.

Mayor Anthony Matranga said he was pleased with the new ordinance, noting it goes beyond what other cities have on the books.

"I’m glad we have it done," Matranga said. "I think it is a policy that is fair but addresses the concerns we had before with the old ordinance."

Sheryl Smith, owner of the Leprechaun game room at 10135 state Highway 6, lambasted commissioners for the tougher ordinance.

"It’s going to be a major hardship for businesses," Smith complained. "You are going to drive everyone out of here. The fees are very excessive.

"It’s a hardship for businesses to stay in business."

Kennelly, who will be responsible for enforcing most of the provisions of the ordinance, said the new rules give him enforcement powers that the city didn’t have before.

"We will have a better handle on who is running these things," Kennelly said. "We will not only permit the machines and employees but the premises, too.

"That means if someone is found to have been operating illegally, we can pull the permit, and that means you are out of business."

The chief noted that most law enforcement agencies are frustrated because the permits cover the machines only. Now, if after a game room raid, the business is found to have been operating an illegal gambling facility, someone who attempts to get a new permit for that building likely will not be able to, he said.

It also means officers will have more leeway to conduct spot inspections, as they do in local bars, the chief said.

Hitchcock’s final passage of the ordinance came a couple of hours after two armed men stormed into the Jokers Wild game room, 9130 state Highway 6. No one was hurt in the robbery, and the robbers made off with an undetermined amount of cash from the office.

No patrons were robbed, the chief said.

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Key provisions

• Effective July 1

• $2,000 business license fee for game rooms +

• $200 per machine city licensing fee +

• Background checks required for all game room operators and employees. Game room operators must pay $100 fee for employees

• Employees must wear photo ID licenses while at work

• Game rooms cannot be located within 300 feet of a school, church, library*

• Game rooms must allow access to police for spot inspections of records

• Existing game rooms have 30 days from July 1 to have all employees licensed

• Bars, convenience stores and other non-game room businesses that operate 8-liners must build a separate room for the machines and are subject to all of the same provisions of the new ordinance

* Existing game rooms have grandfather clause for this provision

+ Existing game rooms pay new fee when current license is renewed

This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with The Galveston County Daily News.

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