JEFFERSON — The Marion County Commissioners Court recently voted to table their decision on game room permits and regulations, allowing more time to determine the required distance of establishments from the sheriff’s office, in the event of an emergency.

“The first question that people ask me about this is: ‘Why don’t we just shut them down?’,” County Judge Leward LaFleur told commissioners.

“Well, in the last legislative session, the state of Texas passed a law that does not allow us to shut game rooms down in our county; so they allowed us to be able to regulate and charge for a permit,” he said. “The district attorney has drawn up these regulations and the application for permitting process.”

Learning that the sheriff’s office often has trouble from such establishments, which are known to attract crime, Pct. 4 Commissioner Charles Treadwell said he’s concerned about game rooms setting up shop miles away from the reach of county authorities.

“Here’s my situation. They’re fixing to put one 16 miles from the courthouse,” said Treadwell. “If they start having trouble there, there’s going to be a lot of trouble before we get there sometimes.

“That’s a long ways to try to regulate something,” the commissioner said.

Addressing Treadwell’s concern, Sheriff David McKnight said game room operators will have to comply with all the new regulations, and pass inspections before they are even granted a permit.

“They have to comply with all these new regulations. And they’re pretty stringent regulations,” the sheriff explained. “So before they can even apply for a permit, we have to inspect it; and, in fact, we have to go back three times to inspect it.

“So whether or not they will put one in remains to be seen,” said Sheriff McKnight.

Strict regulations include everything from the megapixels on surveillance cameras, to no blockage of windows, to specific location of surveillance video, required background checks for employees and required photo ID of patrons.

“It’s going to be pretty tough,” said McKnight. “It’s got hours set on it.”

He said existing game rooms will have to comply, too.

“There’s no grandfather provision,” the sheriff said. “It’s effective on everybody.”

Treadwell agreed the regulations are strict, but said he’d like to see some rules regarding distance.

“The regulations are pretty tough,” he said. “I read some of them, but there’s no regulation of the distance they can be from the court (by the sheriff’s office). They can be anywhere in the county.”

District Attorney Angela Smoak assured the court that they could tailor the regulations to whatever the county desires.

“Under these regulations, of course, we can add whatever we need to add., and whatever y’all would like to have in here,” said Smoak.

“Most of the additions that we made were focused on criminal actions and enforcement and prosecution — those things — like the cameras and things of that nature; but those things can certainly be added if you have a distance in mind,” she said.

The DA said she’ll need to do some further research to determine the viability of some of the proposed distance requirements the court may enforce.

“Obviously around schools — and things of that nature — hospitals, there would be certainly a community need for some restrictions,” said Smoak.

“We can add those things if you all just kind of want to get together and think about what it is you wanted to say,” she told commissioners. “Then I could do the research to make sure that we’re in compliance.”

Sheriff McKnight said if they were to make a determination on a set distance now that would eliminate nearly all of the existing game rooms with the exception of about three.

“That’s the hotspot for game rooms, is (State Highway) 155, and it’s all the way more than 16 miles from here,” the sheriff informed.

Judge LaFleur suggested discussing some different options for the district attorney to explore before taking action on the regulations.

“We can put this off because, as of right now, they’re all closed under the disaster declaration (due to COVID-19 pandemic), so we’ve got time,” the judge said.

Per the declaration of disaster, all entertainment facilities, including but not limited to game rooms, arcades and dance halls in the county were ordered to close on March 20 until further notice, in the interest of the protection of the public health.

Since they’re currently closed under the declaration anyway, the commissioners voted unanimously to table the agenda item on the game room regulations and permits. Commissioner Treadwell made the motion to table the agenda item and Pct. 1 Commissioner JR Ashley seconded the motion.

HB Bill No. 892, relating to county regulation of game rooms took effect Sept. 1, 2019 after being signed into law by Gov. Gregg Abbott on May 21, 2019.

The new state law gives county officials more authority to regulate eight-liner game rooms, including rules on where they can exist. According to Local Government Code Chapter 234, subchapter E, counties can prohibit a location within a certain distance of a school, place of religious worship, or residential neighborhood and restrict the number of game rooms that may operate in an area of the county.

According to the law, game rooms are defined as for-profit businesses with six or more amusement redemption machines, sometimes called “fuzzy animal machines,” or other machines defined in the statute.

Counties may require game rooms to obtain a license or permit to operate and may charge up to $1,000 for the license or permit. Law enforcement or county officials may inspect businesses to determine the number of machines on the premises and may inspect any business with six or more machines to see if it is complying with the statute.

Violations of the statue may carry civil and criminal penalties.