After state lawmakers gave Galveston County authority to impose stricter regulations nearly six months ago, the commissioners court plans to begin determining rules aimed at forcing out the game rooms suspected of breaking state laws and operating as a hotbed for criminal activity.
Officials predict vigorous debate over where game rooms will be able to operate and pushback from county residents who frequent the establishments. Commissioner Ryan Dennard, who has been drafting rules, wants to begin discussions by March and vote on rules later in the spring.
“I think we’ll enjoy some robust public discussion,” Dennard said. “I’ve got constituents who would prefer we left it alone, but I think they understand we’re trying to improve the community.”
Galveston County received authority to regulate game rooms during the state legislative session last year, and the law took effect Sept. 1. In 2013, Harris County was granted the same authority, and its commissioners court approved regulations about four months after the law took effect. However, the metropolitan county faced lawsuits from game room operators, and its rules did not take effect until May 2014.
The county needs to carefully implement regulations that won’t lead to lawsuits, and crafting the rules for Galveston County will be more complicated than Harris County, Dennard said.
Under the state law, the county may “restrict the location of game rooms to specified areas of the county, including the unincorporated area of the county.” The commissioners court can also prohibit games within a certain distance of schools, churches and residential neighborhoods. Additionally, the commissioners court can limit the number of game rooms operating in the county.
Dennard said he interpreted the law to mean the county could regulate the location of game rooms in unincorporated areas and municipalities, similar to zoning ordinances or land-use regulations. However, cities must create operating regulations, such as business hours and building regulations requiring open windows and unlocked doors, Dennard said. The county may only create operating rules for unincorporated areas, he said.
If the commissioners court implements rules copying Harris County, it could simply cause game rooms to shuffle to different areas in the county, not solve the problem, he said. Harris County commissioners court created rules to line up with Houston, which largely pushed game rooms from the county, he said. In Galveston County, the commissioners court will need to consider writing rules that work with diverse municipalities, Dennard said.
“In our county, you have so many smaller municipalities, it’s difficult to get the same level of consistency,” Dennard said. “If the county adopted regulations like Harris County, which only govern unincorporated areas, some cities may become pockets for game rooms.”
Still, the county’s operating rules will be similar to those in Harris County, Dennard said. Commissioners there required all game rooms in unincorporated areas to apply for permits and be open to law enforcement searches. The game rooms must now have clear windows and unlocked doors, be open to the public without memberships and operate between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., among other constraints. A single infraction can result in a $10,000 fine for each day.
“If someone is showing up and getting legal prizes like stuffed animals, coozies or knickknacks like at Chuck E. Cheese, these rules will not be a problem,” Dennard said.
Harris County law enforcement reported game rooms in unincorporated areas had tripled to about 300 establishments before the 2013 regulations. After the rules, a total of 99 game room permit requests were submitted and 30 were granted, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office reported. In the six months after the rules were implemented, about $300,000 and just more than 1,600 devices were seized through the regulations, according to the office.
State law allows game rooms to award winnings up to $5 in value, but law enforcement officials say some pay out much larger sums. Besides breaking laws for winnings, the game rooms have been a hub for other criminal activity, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. Some game rooms restrict access by locking doors and requiring a membership, making it more difficult for authorities to conduct investigations, Trochesset said. The time-consuming investigations into convoluted, organized crime operations stretch resources for an office dealing with other crimes, Trochesset said. “With the amount of Meth and other issues on the street, do I pull my resources away from investigating a crime at someone’s house or trying to shut down a game room?” Trochesset said. “Certain ones we’ve closed the building down five times, and a couple weeks later they open back up.”