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Ordinance amendment now being drafted, allows businesses to move; permit tagging begins Oct. 1
The request by a local game parlor owner to move her entire enterprise to a new location in the wake of a break-in has prompted the Cotulla city council to review its rules for the machine operators and press ahead with a requirement that each device be tagged with a permit number.
Councilors have addressed the issue at two previous monthly meetings this year and have informed the city’s code enforcement officer, Joey Garcia, that they expect him to list and tag each gaming machine in the city.
Although Garcia has confirmed the tags for the machines have been delivered and are ready to be applied to each machine registered with City Hall, City Attorney Steve Pena cautioned elected officials last week that the process is burdensome and creates a bureaucracy that he believes a single officer would have trouble managing.
City Administrator Larry Dovalina has long been opposed to allowing operators to open game parlors in the city, although the registration fees represent municipal income.
City Hall confirmed this week that there are at least eight game parlors inside Cotulla city limits equipped with the devices commonly known as maquinitas, a slang term that refers to the mechanical machines similar to slots or ‘one-arm bandit’ gambling machines found in states where for-profit gaming is legalized. Game parlor machines in Texas are designed not to produce cash pay-outs but instead offer prizes to winners. The operation is overseen by the Texas state comptroller’s office.
“If it were up to me, I’d get rid of every single maquinita in town,” Dovalina said at the city council meeting Thursday, September 8. “They clearly don’t follow the law. They hand out cash. We know it.
“There’s a monster hiding out there,” the city administrator said of the game parlor industry in Cotulla, “and you’re going to let it out of the box.”
At issue in council discussions is whether a game parlor operator be allowed to move the business to another location, and councilors were encouraged by the city attorney last week to stop short of allowing free-will relocation.
Councilors acknowledged the business owner’s request that she be allowed to shift her machines to a safer location but did not immediately grant her permission to do so, eventually going into extended discussion over whether setting the precedent would usher in a series of similar requests.
Mayor Javier Garcia expressed sympathy for those who have been victims of crime – in this case a break-in at a game parlor – and suggested that the council allow an operator to move the machines to a different site at least once.
Atty. Pena said he believes the relocation of the machines, the paperwork involved in registering a new site for a game parlor, and tracking the registered machines to ensure compliance with city ordinances adds an unexpected volume of work to the enforcement officer’s duties.
The code enforcement officer is expecting to begin applying tags to all registered game parlor machines from October 1 onwards.
“It’s a system that invites abuse, because the permits are expensive,” Atty. Pena told the council. “What’s to say someone doesn’t peel a sticker off one machine and put it on another?” What are we going to do, compare serial numbers? You’d have to open that machine up. I don’t know where the serial numbers are.
“Asking a single person in code compliance to track and check all of these machines is a lot to ask,” Pena said.
Councilors discussed how often they believe a game parlor operator may move machines between locations.
“There has to be a legitimate reason to allow someone to move one time a year,” Councilor Gilbert Ayala said. “For example, if the business burns down.”
“Then the maquinitas burn down too,” the mayor said. “If there is a valid reason, there should be one time that they are allowed to move. The council has to decide.”
“I think that’s a good summary,” the city attorney said. “How do we know that what people are telling us is the truth?”
“A police report,” the mayor said.
“You’re making it into a purple cow,” Dovalina said of the council’s move towards addressing requests on a case-by-case basis. “It shouldn’t have to come up on the agenda. If it has to come up to council, you’re going to see people coming to council.”
“There are probably machines being moved around right now that we don’t know about,” the city attorney said. “Charge them a fee. Allow them to move once.”
Councilor Eloy Zertuche suggested that the council allow each game parlor operator to move the business to a new site once in two years, and stipulated that the new site be inspected by the city and a registry fee raised.
“We can compare [our] fee to other cities and raise it,” the city administrator said.
“The people will at least see that we are trying to help,” the mayor said.
The council has ordered Atty. Pena to draft an amendment to the city’s existing ordinance, allowing game parlor operators to move machines for a legitimate reason, but did not specify what reasons would be considered or how many times an operator may change locations. Details of the proposed amendment will be discussed at future council meetings.
“There’s a huge potential for the cat-and-mouse game of switching stickers,” Atty. Pena added. “People think that we are a small town and that we won’t catch them.”
“But we do,” Mayor Garcia said. “Sometimes.”