Fort Worth regulates game room industry

Sherriff’s deputies check out a game room in south Fort Worth in 2009.
Sherriff’s deputies check out a game room in south Fort Worth in 2009. Star-Telegram

The Fort Worth City Council, through a zoning ordinance passed last fall and a fee schedule adopted Tuesday, now regulates game rooms and in effect will pull the plug on the vast majority of slot-like gaming devices within the city limits.

The actions are welcome news for many residents, who have complained that the “gambling” operations have long been a nuisance in their neighborhoods, attracting unsavory characters, increased traffic, litter and, in some cases, being a magnet for prostitution and other illegal activities.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of game rooms, either as stand-alone operations or as a part of other businesses like service stations, convenience stores and strip malls.

Although state law prohibits cash prizes — and allows no prize valued at more than $5 — there have been claims that many game rooms violate those rules. ,

In October, the council passed an ordinance requiring such “amusement facilities” to be located in industrial-zoned areas at least 1,000 feet from residences, churches, schools, hospitals or another gaming room.

The regulations also call for adequate parking, signage at the entrance clearly stating it’s a game room and at least one unobstructed window through which all machines can be seen.

The zoning restrictions alone mean that most of the establishments in and around neighborhoods would have to get rid of their machines. Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett said he expects voluntary compliance from many of the businesses.

For those that plan to operate under the new rules, locating in appropriate zoning areas and limiting the number of machines to 30, the city’s new annual fee schedule would apply: $500 for a license, plus $160 per machine and $120 for a certificate of occupancy inspection.

Businesses that violate the rules would be subject to stiff fines: $2,000 to $4,000 a day, a $200 non-compliance re-inspection fee and $100 for unsealing each machine.

The city sent letters in November to 2,600 current and potential game room operators to make them aware of the new rules, and officials were immediately accused of designing an ordinance “to eliminate, not regulate” facilities.

Game room operators and game machine distributors have filed three lawsuits against the city, saying the ordinances are too restrictive, that state law already regulates games of chance and that the action would take income and investments from the businesses.

The lawsuits also insist the city’s code division cannot oversee the strict regulations through zoning.

In documents presented to the City Council, Bennett wrote that the fees for the limited number of “permitted” new game rooms under the ordinance will bring in $42,200 annually. That amount, he told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board, would be the “break even” amount for the city to regulate the licensed establishments.

The total cost of enforcing the game room ordinance, including continued enforcement of the game room ordinance for facilities that are not licensed, is about $463,848 a year. The city will have to absorb the costs not covered by fees.

It appears clear that of the more than 2,000 game rooms in Fort Worth today, there will be only a handful in the next few months as the full effects of the ordinance take hold.

The city’s Planning and Development Department, Bennett said, projects that only one establishment (with the maximum 30 machines) would get through the permitting process today. He said “three to four others” may qualify.

Fort Worth’s ordinance is a strong one, designed to protect neighborhoods and bring needed regulation to an industry known for having skirted the rules.

The lawsuits ensure that courts will decide whether the city has gone too far.