Some of the ideas would include an application process for game machine permits and an increase in fees per machine.
Commissioner Stanley Tuttle said he’d like to see an increase from the current $400 per machine to $1,000 a machine to be in line with Woodsboro’s municipality fee for the machines.
A sense of urgency to put game room regulations in place was expressed by County Judge Rene Mascorro.
He mentioned a game room robbery in a similar establishment in Brooks County, Ingleside ,and the recent arrests in Refugio County associated with game rooms in Woodsboro.
Macarro said he’d like to take the lead in having a stringent ordinance.
Commissioner Ann Lopez said she thinks increasing game room fees is a step in the right direction.
Tuttle said not much can be done about the game rooms right now except to increase fees.
The commissioners court last summer agreed to streamline the fees throughout the county but never followed through on the agreement.
“I think they need to be legal. That’s the whole thing there. Will we trade our good reputation for fees?” asked Commissioner Gary Bourland.
Bourland said the game rooms should be regulated to allow the county to watch them closer.
Commissioner Rod Bernal said he knows that a lot of elderly people go to the game rooms.
“Safety. That’s our primary concern. I think it is a good idea to raise fees to $1,000 (a machine),” he said.
Refugio County Sheriff Robert Bolcik agreed that fees should be raised, but he said after Woodsboro raised its fee to $1,000 from $500, it didn’t curtail the game rooms from coming in.
He suggested $1,500 per machine but noted that there would be pros and cons about it.
Bolcik said he had told the Woodsboro police chief that if anything bad came in with the game rooms, the Sheriff’s Office would come in to help.
“Bad elements came in, and we took care of it,” Bolcik said.
County Clerk Ida Ramirez said the game rooms started coming into the county in August 2011. She said it started with two businesses.
Then three businesses were in the county in 2013 and four in 2014.
She said one game room operator came in after reading the Sheriff’s Office letter warning them to comply with the law.
She said that person wanted a refund and accused her of being in cahoots with the sheriff and that she knew they paid out in cash.
“No refunds,” Mascorro said. “You can’t get a refund for a license.”
County Attorney Todd Steele said the way to control the game rooms is to get “a good solid ordinance.”
But he said effective law enforcement is a necessity, as well.
“One is not good without the other,” Steele said.
Steele said it would take time to develop an ordinance. And he strongly advised not to piecemeal an ordinance, but rather to wait until all the pieces were in place, including the increase in fees.
He advised that he needed a list of regulations from the commissioners court to work from. He said he needed more than generalities.
Refugio Mayor Joey Heard said in Refugio, law enforcement scared the game rooms off.
And he said he would work with the city council to raise the game room fees the same as whatever amount the county comes up with. Currently, Refugio has a $500 per machine fee.
Refugio Police Chief Andy Lopez jr. said he was fortunate the town supported him. He conducted a two-month investigation before busting game rooms in Refugio and confiscating the game room machines.
“People from Woodsboro came to me telling me the operators are paying out in cash. If you turn a blind eye, they’re going to stay here,” Lopez said.
The court further discussed possible regulations, including requiring the names of who owns the game room machines, who works in the establishments, camera surveillance, creating a compliance officer for inspections of the game rooms, requiring bonded security, distances from schools and churches requirement, fire and safety requirements.
“These would make the wrong person uncomfortable,” Mascorro said.
Steele said the Harris County ordinance would only be a model to develop Refugio County’s ordinance regulating game rooms.
“Sounds like a real good model to me,” Bourland said.
Tuttle said he has a business and he pays certain taxes on equipment.
“Do they also pay taxes on equipment and inventory?” he asked.
“These organizations come in here, pay permit fees, rent a building and they’re done. They pay no tax on machines. How is that fair?” he asked.
Steele noted that game rooms can’t be regulated throughout the county without interlocal agreements.
He said raising the fees only has the wrong message: “We don’t want illegal business in here unless they pay the fee.”
“The message I want is transparency,” Mascorro said.
He said he heard game rooms make between $50,000 and $60,000 a weekend, so increasing fees wouldn’t affect them much.
“And it’s not because they are giving away fuzzy animals,” Mascorro said.
He added that the state comptrollers office issues permits and pushes down the responsibility of law enforcement on counties.
Mascorro said the way game rooms are now, laundering money – possibly drug money – is easy.
“We welcome a certain element we don’t want,” he said.
Bourland said he wouldn’t mind interlocal agreements for law enforcement.
“It’s all on you, Sheriff, until we get this done,”Mascorro said.
The Woodsboro police chief resigned at the end of January and the town has that position open now. The police chief, Joseph Roberts, and city officials, did not divulge the reason for his leaving.
“The game rooms are closing down since the bust in Woodsboro,” Bolcik said.
“It’s like waving a flag that says, ‘I’m guilty.’” Mascorro said.
Commissioners set another workshop to assemble what they want in an ordinance for Feb. 25 directly after the court’s regular meeting, which beings at 9 a.m.