Presidio City Council seeks legal advice on potential game room ordinance

PRESIDIO — At Monday night’s meeting, Presidio City Council returned to the topic of game rooms, which drew heated discussion during public comment at a meeting in November. Two game rooms have been quietly operating in Presidio, but after widespread shutdowns and negative media attention in Odessa, the city of Presidio has started considering regulating these businesses in case the industry continues to grow locally. 

Gambling is illegal in Texas, but game rooms operate within legal loopholes to simulate some of the fun of slot machine-style gaming within the letter of the law. Proponents of game rooms insist that it’s good, clean fun — and detractors say it’s a thinly-veiled way of skirting the law in plain sight, with the risk of attracting other types of criminal activity. 

Assistant City Attorney Nella Joseph joined the meeting via Zoom to offer her insight. The agenda as written scheduled a first reading of an ordinance regulating game rooms, but Joseph advised that the council didn’t have to follow through and could instead talk through aspects of the proposed ordinance before initiating the formal process of passing a new law. “It’s a hot subject, and a controversial type of ordinance,” Joseph said. 

The conversation then shifted into clarifying what game rooms are and what other cities have done to regulate them. Joseph explained that many game rooms operate on the “fuzzy animal loophole” — since cash prizes of more than $5 cannot be given out in Texas, game rooms can instead offer non-cash prizes that can be redeemed elsewhere for cash or other forms of payout above the limit. 

Jeran Stephens, secretary of the Zoning Board, asked if the city could limit where game rooms can operate — in other cities, they cannot be located within a certain distance of a school or church, and can’t be on residential property. City Administrator Pablo Rodriguez said that the proposed ordinance would prohibit game rooms from opening on residential property. 

Councilmember Joe Andy Mendoza was concerned that Council’s focus on the details could lead to the number of game rooms spiraling out of control. “It’s good that we take our time with this, but what if many more pop up?” he asked.

Mayor John Ferguson agreed. “I don’t see this as a pressing issue, but we want to limit a free-for-all in our community.” 

Joseph explained that there’s already a framework in state law that cities can adapt to be more specific — for example, the city of Alpine limits the number of game rooms to four and can keep track of how many game rooms there are by requiring yearly licensing and permits. 

Stephens asked if the new ordinance would apply retroactively to existing game rooms or if they would be exempt from the new restrictions. Joseph advised building a grace period into the ordinance so that existing businesses could get into compliance. “You can say that we’re going to give you time,” she explained. 

To cap off the discussion, Joseph advised that the state-level laws regulating game rooms are constantly in flux — with the beginning of a new legislative session, they could change even more. “This is an ever-changing issue,” she said.