SEBASTIAN — It’s working — so far.
For months, as many as 10 eight-liner arcades were doing brisk business in this farming community.
Then last month, county commissioners ordered a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of game room building permits here and across Willacy County’s unincorporated areas.
And early this month, a new crime task force launched raids that led two game rooms to shut down while two others closed their doors.
Now, commissioners are expected to meet Thursday to consider extending their moratorium.
“It helped slow down the growth,” resident Joe Salinas said yesterday of the moratorium. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Commissioners said they called the 30-day moratorium “to address issues related to public safety and public hazards” after residents expressed concern about heavy traffic, possible building code violations, including possible lack of fire exits, glaring lighting and late-night operations.
“Why only a month?” Salinas asked yesterday. “Why not make it permanent?”
Yesterday, commissioners could not be reached for comment.
Only Commissioner Eliberto Guerra answered his phone, declining comment, saying he was resting with a cold.
“It’s transparently clear the issue lies in the commissioners court,” Salinas, a radio technical director, said. “It’s been looking for months that they’re reluctant to make permanent decisions.”
Like Salinas, many residents want commissioners to crack down harder on game rooms blamed for luring crime into this tight-knit community.
In November 2016, authorities arrested three Brownsville men after they allegedly tried to rob Sebastian’s Silver Outpost amid gunfire.
For more than three years, many residents have called on commissioners to approve an ordinance based on a law the state Legislature drafted specifically for Willacy and Harris counties in 2014.
“The commissioners are dragging their feet,” Salinas said.
The law would allow the county to cite illegal game room owners and their employees with fines of up to $10,000 per violation.
It would also require distances between game rooms, neighborhoods, schools and churches; prohibit tinted windows and require signs clearly identifying the businesses as game rooms.
In 2014, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved the law known as House Bill 2123.
But before an audience with ties to game rooms, Willacy County’s previous commission scrapped the law that then-County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. pushed to turn into a county ordinance.
Without an ordinance to regulate eight-liner arcades, Sheriff Larry Spence warned more raids might target game rooms here.
On Jan. 6, the newly formed Willacy County Special Crimes Task Force raided the El Travieso Game Room, 13088 FM 506 and the 777, 200 West Main St., netting nine arrests and $45,000 in cash.
“That raid helped a lot,” Salinas said. “It slowed things down.”
An undercover investigation found the game rooms were illegally paying out cash, Spence said.
“It’s going to be an on-going thing,” Spence said of raids. “Information comes in, complaints come in and we’ve got that (task force) team going, we can show up any day.”
District Attorney Annette Hinojosa suggested the sheriff’s department, the Raymondville and Lyford police departments and the district attorney’s office team up to launch the task force.
Spence said his warning of property seizures might lead more game rooms to want to shut their doors.
“That might make them think a little as well,” Spence said. “If you’re renting property to some of these people, be aware we may go after you.”