March 1, 2023 422 PM
PRESIDIO — At last week’s meeting, Presidio City Council took another step toward drafting an ordinance regulating game rooms. A first reading of the potential ordinance was supposed to take place that night, but city officials decided to revisit some of the nuances of their drafted ordinance after detailed legal counsel.
Gambling is officially illegal in Texas, but game rooms have popped up across the state to simulate some of the fun of gambling while operating within the letter of the law. Presidio currently has two game rooms — since the issue was first discussed at City Council in November, both have become more visible with updated signage and posted hours of operation.
The City of Presidio decided to address the issue after an ordinance in Odessa was passed that prevented renewals of game room permits at the end of December 2022. Presidio’s game rooms popped up in part as a response to the new laws in the Permian Basin — owners Flor Montoya and Oscar Garcia told city officials that they had moved their businesses to Presidio in an attempt to skirt what they felt was a legal overreaction.
Proponents of game rooms say that it’s good clean fun — in a city with few public gathering spaces, they fulfill a need for community and a diversion from the stress of everyday life. In an interview with the Presidio International, Montoya compared her game room to the way others might scroll on their phones. “At the end of the day, instead of going home or going somewhere else, I go to the game room and relax — I lose myself on the machine,” said Montoya.
Some council members were concerned about the potential negative effects of game rooms. City officials in Odessa decided to crack down after law enforcement officials and community members complained of crimes clustering around the establishments. There were 32 game rooms within city limits before an ordinance was passed that prohibited game room owners from applying for new permits.
Harris County Commissioners Court adopted similar regulations back in 2013. The number of game rooms has since plummeted — 10 years later, there are only five within Houston city limits. Many of these gaming parlors had been offering cash prizes — illegal in Texas if exceeding $5 — and were associated with a number of shootings, stabbings and DWIs.
Some council members in Presidio held the same concerns. Steve Alvarez worried about the impact on the community’s seniors, who have few other opportunities for recreation. “Many of them are getting addicted to gambling — and they’re on fixed incomes,” he said.
City Administrator Pablo Rodriguez sent a draft of the proposed ordinance to Marianella Joseph of Bojorquez Law Firm, the city’s official legal counsel. Joseph provided some insight into how the potential ordinance would be curtailed by state law — including appropriate permit fees, zoning restrictions and penalties for not abiding by said ordinance.
The current draft of Presidio’s ordinance focuses on the permitting process — business owners must pay a one-time fee of $1,000 and pass a safety inspection, as well as a licensing fee for each machine in the establishment. Subsequent renewals cost $100 a year, so long as the owner hasn’t violated the stipulations detailed in their permit.
Questions about additional regulations remained. Presidio’s draft requires that game rooms can only open on property zoned commercial — but many cities regulate how far away they can be located from a church or a school. Council members also wanted to put limitations on the legal age of game room patrons. “I don’t think we want minors in these types of places,” Rodriguez said.
Council members also wondered if they could put any limitations on the number of game rooms within city limits — the City of Alpine only allows four to operate simultaneously. Rodriguez expressed hesitation about putting that kind of limitation in writing. “If it’s a legal business, then why would we limit [the number of] legal businesses?” he said.
Rodriguez also pulled up a number of case studies that might incentivize the city to be more lenient in their regulations. The estimated revenue on licenses and permits costs the city of Odessa $810,000 annually. The City of Laredo has raked in millions of dollars on game rooms since hiking up their fees. “[Laredo] was able to balance their budget,” Rodriguez said.
Council members ultimately agreed that more time was needed before presenting another draft of the ordinance to the public. “We have to balance as best we can while keeping the community’s health in mind,” said Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas. “I’m not saying it’s bad — but we have to look at all the sides.”