Reining in illegal eight-liner gambling businesses would cost $174,000 a year in police and inspection hires, Waco police officials told council members Tuesday, adding that the issue doesn’t rank high in public safety priorities.

“As far as priorities, this has not been on there,” Interim Chief Frank Gentsch told the council budget and audit committee. “Our priority is repeat offenders and our gang unit.”

Still, council members said they want to continue studying how to amend the ordinance regulating coin-operated games and how to enforce it better.

Gentsch and Assistant Chief Robert Lanning said at least 60 establishments around Waco offer video slot machines, or eight-liners, and the number has been increasing.

Gambling is illegal under state law, and the city has a licensing system for owners of the machines. But legal loopholes make enforcement difficult.

State legislation in 1993 allowed a so-called “fuzzy animal” exception to gambling laws that allowed coin-operated game machines to offer merchandise worth up to $5 to winners. Police say businesses exploit that loophole by offering gift certificates that can be redeemed for cash elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a 2006 city ordinance requires owners and operators to get a city license that can be revoked for violations. But the ordinance exempts establishments with fewer than 25 machines or those that operate the machines as a secondary business. Only a handful of businesses are licensed, mostly those such as pool halls and children’s pizza parlors that have amusement games.

Councilman Dillon Meek said too many eight-liner businesses are making thousands of dollars a day off illegal gambling, evading prosecution simply by limiting their machine count to 24. Mayor Kyle Deaver called the ordinance “ineffective” and suggested rewriting it to eliminate the exemptions.

Money needed

Gentsch said making a dent in eight-liner operations is going to require money, not just a new ordinance.

“It does no good to change the laws unless you follow up with inspection and enforcement,” he said.

Gentsch said enforcement would require a new police position costing $104,000 a year and a new city inspection position costing $70,000.

He said the positions would not have to focus on eight-liner establishments exclusively. The police officer could spend about half of his or her time on efforts such as the Crime-Free Multi-Housing program.

Meek said he might support the additional hire.

“To me, if there’s a need to add someone full time, this could knock out two birds with one stone,” he said.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said licensing fees could pay for some of the inspection and administrative costs of the programs. But, the fees could only be used for the licensing program, not for general law enforcement or inspections, City Attorney Jennifer Richie said.

Councilman John Kinnaird said he is not persuaded of the need to spend more money on eight-liner enforcement.

“Personally, I think that, though gambling is illegal, there might be a higher use of funds,” Kinnaird said.

Deaver said the council will likely bring up the issue again during next year’s summer budget discussions. By then a new police chief will be in place and will be able to make a recommendation based on the chief’s overall law enforcement priorities, Deaver said.

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