Fort Worth council wants to get a handle on gaming machines

Fort Worth has a problem with game rooms, some of which are operating as illegal gambling operations, but city officials don’t know just how big the problem is or exactly what to do about it.

City Councilman Danny Scarth wants to find some way for the city to better regulate establishments that provide “eight-liner” games, perhaps through zoning, licensing or even imposing a special tax.

Part of the dilemma is that state law governing gaming devices is vague. Electronic games are allowed under a 1993 law if they offer noncash prizes worth no more than $5 per play, or coupons for such items.

Some companies have tried offering gift certificates, which at least one court has declared the equivalent of cash, and executives of a Dallas-based company were indicted in Tarrant County a few years ago over a system where players could accumulate “prize points” on cards that could be redeemed.

But Scarth’s concern is that some of the operators are illegally paying cash and that they attract crime including robberies, drugs and prostitution, all of which harm neighborhoods.

In a March report to the council, Fort Worth police noted 131 game rooms in the city that had come to their attention through reported criminal activity, residents’ complaints and officer discovery.

More than $13,000 was confiscated in two cases conducted by vice officers this year, and last year a Fort Worth officer was given four years in prison for warning eight-liner operators about impending raids.

If the city is to regulate game rooms — and based on anecdotal evidence it should — it must clearly define the establishments that fall under any city ordinance, as there are plenty of gaming arcades, children’s party establishments and individual chance vending machines.

Then the council can decide whether it should impose any zoning parameters (such as distances from schools and churches), hours of operation, licensing or taxes per machine.

Council members are right to proceed on this matter with both caution and urgency.