Willacy extends halt on new 8 liners: County still working to draft arcade regulations

RAYMONDVILLE — The waiting game continues.

Willacy County commissioners yesterday extended their moratorium targeting the issuance of eight-liner arcade building permits in unincorporated areas.

Meanwhile, commissioners continue to work with District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to draft regulations to control the game rooms.

In the meeting’s public comment period, Stanley Gonzales asked commissioners to request residents’ input into the proposed regulations.

“They’re trying to put something together,” Sheriff Larry Spence said after the meeting. “They haven’t finalized anything yet.”

Spence said Hinojosa and County Judge Aurelio Guerra have asked him for input into the drafting of regulations.

“We threw questions back and forth,” he said.

But Spence said he does not know whether officials are planning to propose tough regulations setting distances between game rooms and homes, schools and churches while limiting operating hours and numbers of eight-liner machines.

Like Gonzales, Spence wants regulations with “teeth in them” to help him better control game rooms.

“Before they (set regulations), I’d like to see a copy,” Spence said.

How it started

On Dec. 14, commissioners called for a 30-day moratorium “to address issues related to public safety and public hazards.”

Since then, no new game rooms have opened in the county’s unincorporated areas.

In Sebastian, residents such as Cheto Garcia called on commissioners to stop any more game rooms from opening.

Ruining the neighborhood

Garcia, who wants the county to shut down game rooms, said eight-liner arcades have nearly surrounded his home in this tiny farming community.

Along the county’s southern edge, the moratorium has kept the number of eight-liner arcades at 10.

Game rooms have squeezed their way into Sebastian’s narrow streets.

Garcia said a game room opened about 75 feet from his home, blasting glaring lights into his bedroom as late as 3 a.m.

Meanwhile, another eight-liner arcade opened about 100 feet from a Head Start program, he said.

“The moratorium really helps — no one else is able to open,” Spence said.

Raids help, too

On Jan. 6, the newly-formed Willacy County Special Crimes Task Force raided the El Travieso Game Room, 13088 FM 506, and the 777, 200 West Main St., netting nine arrests and $45,000 in cash.

An undercover investigation found the game rooms were illegally paying out cash, Spence said.

After the raid, two other game rooms shut their doors.

But now, only El Travieso remains closed. The other three game rooms are back in business.

Ordinance could be answer

Like Gonzales, resident Joe Salinas wants commissioners to approve an ordinance based on a law the state Legislature drafted specifically for Willacy and Harris counties in 2014.

The law would allow the county to cite illegal game room owners and their employees with fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

It would also require distances between game rooms, neighborhoods, schools and churches; prohibit tinted windows and require signs clearly identifying the businesses as game rooms.

In 2014, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved that law, known as House Bill 2123.

But in Willacy County, the previous commission rejected the law that then-County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. tried to turn into a county ordinance.

TIMELINE

July 11 — Residents speak out on

game rooms at town hall meeting

Dec. 14 — Commissioners call for a

30-day moratorium

Jan. 25 — Commissioners extend

moratorium to draft regulations

Feb. 8 — Commissioners extend moratorium again while apparently finalizing regulations