After nearly a year of delays, Galveston County Commissioners in December approved rules regulating game rooms in unincorporated parts of Galveston County.
The new rules are the latest version of regulations developed in fits and starts since the legislature empowered the county to regulate the businesses in 2015.
In a 4-0 vote, commissioners enacted rules effective Jan. 1 empowering a single county employee — a game room administrator — to oversee game rooms. Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark was absent from the meeting.
While that administrator is explicitly in charge of enforcement, the new rules also can be enforced by any certified Texas peace officer, officials said.
The new rules apply only to game rooms that operate in unincorporated parts of the county, said Precinct 1 Commissioner Darrell Apffel, who helped draft the rules.
The goal of the regulations are not to shut down game rooms, Apffel said. Rather, the rules are supposed to keep the businesses open and operating and law-abiding.
“We’re not trying to reduce them, we’re just trying to make sure there’s compliance,” he said.
There are about 15 game rooms operating in unincorporated Galveston County.
Game rooms are businesses that largely profit from the use of coin-operated gaming machines, similar to slot machines. While gambling is illegal in Texas, state law allows game rooms to operate gambling machines if they reward winners only with non-cash prizes, limited to $5 or 10 times the cost of the game.
Many law enforcement agencies argue the game rooms often operate outside the law by paying cash prizes. They argue also that they attract crime and bad behavior. In recent years, there have been cases of game room owners failing to report robberies at their businesses to avoid the gaze of law enforcement.
Some of the rules are meant to keep the businesses operating in the light, officials said.
Game rooms must have permits, which owners must pay an application fee and submit to an inspection to obtain, according to the new regulations.
Once permitted, the game rooms must be closed between midnight and 8 a.m. The businesses must keep records of who works for the business and must put their employees through background checks.
Game rooms cannot operate “membership programs” that restrict who can and cannot enter the businesses.
The administrator will be in charge of issuing or denying game room permits and has the power to suspend or revoke permits held by existing businesses.
“My goal was to alleviate as much of the dangers of them as we can,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Stephen Holmes.
The rules have been a long time time coming.
“It’s good to get them done,” Apffel said.
The county passed rules in 2016 that would have required game rooms to be permitted by the county if they operated six or more eight-liners and to be subject to inspections.
Commissioners in 2017 suspended the rules, with the promise they would be up for re-approval sometime that year after commissioners refined them.
County commissioners later aimed for January 2018 as a deadline for rewritten rules, but that date passed without action.
In September, County Judge Mark Henry announced plans to move Garret Foskit, the county’s emergency management coordinator, into the game room administrator job. A new emergency management coordinator was hired in November, the county said.
December’s meeting was a special called meeting where commissioners were attempting to wrap up some end-of-the-year business.
State lawmakers in 2015 gave Galveston County rule-making authority to regulate game rooms across the county. Galveston is one of about a half-dozen counties statewide that has that authority.