Willacy County weeding out the game rooms

RAYMONDVILLE — Game room owners have made their cases.

Earlier this week, the Reber Memorial Library’s annex featured many of the trappings of a courtroom.

Friday and Thursday, hearing examiner Richard Solis upheld the county’s rejections of six applications for permits to operate game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Game room owners can appeal the decision in state District Court.

It was all part of the tough, new ordinance regulating game rooms in the vast, rural areas.

“It’s kind of like a court hearing,” Sheriff Larry Spence said Friday afternoon. “It’s case by case. (Game room owners) present the reasons they feel it shouldn’t be denied. Then it goes to the county side and they give their reasons why they denied it. Then the judge makes his decision.”

However, the hearings are closed to the public, he said.

 

How the reviews go

Under the ordinance, the Sheriff’s Department reviews game room permit applications to determine whether there is evidence to reject them.

As part of the process, game room owners can appeal their applications’ rejections before Solis, a retired justice of the peace appointed by county commissioners last month.

“The hearings are very important,” Spence said. “The purpose of the ordinance is to regulate (game rooms.) One way to regulate them is to weed them out if they’re operating illegally.”

Before Solis, the District Attorney’s Office presented its evidence for denying the applications.

Then, game room owners or their attorneys presented their arguments.

Meanwhile, Maj. Ernie Garcia of the Sheriff’s Department stood by with the evidence his deputies gathered from the permit applications.

Factors leading to denials include game rooms’ code violations, any owners’ or employees’ criminal histories and failure to properly complete the applications, Spence said.

“Mostly, the applications were not filled out properly,” Spence said. “Most weren’t forthcoming with the information requested. Most of them basically didn’t list everything that needed to be listed — didn’t include information so we could do background checks.”

Game room owners unsuccessful in their appeals could apparently take their cases to state District Court.

Since county commissioners approved the ordinance in February, Spence’s deputies have reviewed applications to determine whether they should be approved or denied.

So far, the department has approved two applications — one for an eight-liner arcade in Sebastian and the other for a game room in Lasara.

Meanwhile, it has denied permits to about 11 applicants.

The new ordinance has drastically cut down the number of game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.

In Sebastian, as many as 10 game rooms operated before the ordinance was approved.

“We feel and hope it’s a step in the right direction that the public wanted,” Spence said about the ordinance.

 

How we got here

For years, many residents called for an ordinance to control the spread of eight-liner arcades across the vast unincorporated areas.

Then in February, commissioners worked with District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to draft the ordinance.

The law gives law enforcement the authority to inspect game rooms for violations.

Under the ordinance, game rooms cited for violations will be required to shut down.

Spence said even building code violations might be enough to force some to close.

Under the ordinance, game rooms face $10,000 fines for each violation.

The ordinance requires game rooms to limit operations between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Sunday mornings.

Meanwhile, the ordinance requires new eight-liner arcades to be located at least 5,000 feet from other game rooms, on frontage property with direct access to highways.

Two approved – one in Sebastian; one in Lasara

11 denied