Game rooms in Victoria

A sign for a game room, now closed, stands in front of an empty building on Houston Highway in July 2019.

Victoria County officials are planning to craft a new ordinance that will strictly regulate game rooms in the county.

Victoria County commissioners on Monday discussed, for the first time, creating an ordinance to regulate game rooms. The discussion came as the result of House Bill 892, which repeals a section of the Local Government Code that limited game room regulation to a handful of metro Texas counties. The bill went into effect Sept. 1.

Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller opened Monday’s discussion explaining that “it’s no secret” that game rooms have been a problem in Victoria for some time. He said the new bill allows the county a wide spectrum in what it’s able to do. On one end, he said, the county can do nothing, and on the other, the county can “apparently push these game rooms out of our community.”

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The bill, which was supported by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, allows counties to dictate game rooms’ locations and hours, require permitting and inspections, forbid members-only rules, charge fees and levy $10,000 fines, among other stipulations.

Among the packed courtroom, representatives from numerous nonprofit organizations including American Legion Post No. 166 in Victoria, the Victoria Bach Festival Association, Kiwanis Club of Victoria and the Victoria Chapter of Disabled American Veterans were present Monday to express their support for an ordinance.

All of the nonprofits are members of the Victoria Charitable Bingo Trust, which files with the Texas Lottery Commission. The nonprofits benefit from lawful bingo played at Palace Bingo in Victoria.

John Griffin, an advocate for the trust, said the cash generated by illegal activities in game rooms is not staying in Victoria, and the illegal activity siphons funds away from lawful bingo that benefits the nonprofits in the trust.

“These criminal operations have come up like weeds, they pop up out of nowhere, transporting dozens and hundreds of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be spent at bingo operations that are lawful,” he said.

He said he hoped the county will proceed to “take the full measure of authority given by the governor and the legislature” when moving forward.

Will Martin Jr., the commander of American Legion Post No. 166, the co-executive director of Conservative Texans for Charitable Bingo and chairman of the charities at Palace Bingo, said the problem with illicit game rooms isn’t unique to Victoria County alone, but is faced by counties around the state.

He said it’s not only a monetary problem, but “breeds other crimes” as well, and asked commissioners to work to shut down all illegal activity in game rooms.

“Since the state of Texas has granted you full authority and autonomy to regulate game rooms in Victoria County, we ask that you completely shut down this criminal enterprise that has preyed upon Victoria County for too long,” he said.

Mike Samford, a board member with the Children’s Discovery Museum, said the money the museum receives from the bingo is used to help foster its many goals, including providing interactive educational opportunities and engaging family experiences for residents and visitors.

Samford said he searched recently for stories about game rooms in the Advocate and elsewhere online and mainly found stories about the downsides game rooms have in communities. To be fair, he said, he searched for stories about the good things that game rooms do, too – but found most legal game rooms had closed, because they couldn’t compete with illegal ones.

“We’re asking you now that you have the new opportunities that you have to just regulate the heck out of this, with the goal of zero,” he said.

Chief Deputy Roy Boyd, of the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday the sheriff’s office will enforce any ordinance the county implements. He said the office is in favor of working to eliminate game rooms, because it has “grave concerns” about them.

Boyd, like others who spoke, brought up the array of crimes that seem to occur at game rooms, including burglaries and robberies. He said oftentimes crimes that occur at game rooms aren’t reported, because the game room employees don’t want law enforcement to show up, which is likely a sign illegal business is happening.

“If I’m running a business, I have a bakery, and somebody comes in and holds me up at gunpoint and I don’t call law enforcement, that’s what we call a clue,” he said. “They’re probably not making their money on pastries.”

County Commissioner Clint Ives echoed the desire to create an ordinance to regulate game rooms. He said in the weeks since the topic has been “flirted with,” he has yet to hear any benefit to having even legal game rooms in the community.

“I’m of the opinion that the county needs to entertain the most aggressive ordinance that we really can,” he said.

County Commissioner Danny Garcia agreed, saying if the county doesn’t “go full force on this,” it could open up loopholes for people operating game rooms and lead to further problems.

County Commissioner Gary Burns also agreed. He said he has a problem with any business that’s “based on a lie,” and said people in the courtroom and in the community seemed to be unified on an opinion.

“I can’t see any reason why we don’t go for getting rid of all of them, because I can’t see what good they do,” he said.

County Commissioner Kevin Janak was not present at Monday’s meeting.

Eric Magee, the county’s attorney with law firm Allison, Bass & Magee and Thomas Gwosdz, the city’s attorney, were present at the meeting to offer advice and feedback.

Victoria City Council in 2015 passed an ordinance regulating game rooms within city limits, and strengthened the ordinance in 2018 by adding permitting requirements. After that happened, the number of game rooms in Victoria dropped by 90% over night, Gwosdz said.

Magee and Gwosdz agreed it would be wise for the county and city to work together when crafting an ordinance to best consider the community at-large.

Victoria County Criminal District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson was also present at Monday’s meeting, and said later she and Gwosdz are committed to working together to craft an ordinance that meets both the city and county’s needs.

Zeller said the message he heard from all who spoke Monday was clear – having zero game rooms in the county would be a success. He said the county will work with the city, the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office and all necessary groups to craft the right ordinance for the county.

“We’ll proceed down the path of using every tool available to limit and hopefully eliminate game rooms in our community,” he said.

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, mtheophil@vicad.com or on Twitter

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