The city of La Joya has taken a few hits since passing an ordinance in September allowing eight-liner establishments to set up shop.
But just days before county law enforcement officers swarmed an establishment at an old Dollar General store, city officials touted a $191,000 payout on permits for the machines. That money will be used to improve infrastructure and city services, Mayor Fito Salinas has said.
About 95 percent of the patrons at the La Joya gamerooms were from out of town, Salinas estimated. Sullivan City has passed a similar ordinance, allowing for the eight-liners, which are similar to slot machines. Other cities in counties like Duval, Nueces, Zapata and Starr have similar ordinances requiring fees.
Under La Joya’s ordinance, owners of amusement machine establishments would be subject to a $2,500 annual permit fee as well as a $1,000 fee per machine quarterly. Another $300 monthly fee per machine also is due quarterly.
Immediately after passing the ordinance, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra declared war on the establishments, stating he’d take down any businesses that popped up within the county. He feared when he left office at the end of 2014, eight-liners, or maquinitas, would take over the western portion of the county.
But new District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez picked up where Guerra left off Feb. 13, working with the sheriff’s office to raid a La Joya establishment. Investigators went into the location undercover and witnessed cash payouts, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Before the raid, Rodriguez said he’d been receiving a lot of calls from people complaining about eight-liners and that they were paying out in cash.
“At the end of the day, we have to do a job, and if these eight-liners are being used in an illegal manner, we’re going to take an interest in it,” Rodriguez said. “Some people feel or think the DA’s office is OK with these machines being operated illegally. We can’t say that we’re just going to sit here and turn away and look the other way.
The legalities of maquinitas have long been a subject of debate in Texas, where gambling in itself is illegal, which means owners of the establishments are not allowed to pay out winners in cash prizes. However, they are allowed to hand out non-cash prizes of “not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once or $5, whichever is less.”
The issue has divided cities in western Hidalgo, with La Joya and Sullivan City welcoming the increased revenue, while Peñitas and Palmview have taken strong stands against the establishments.
Palmview Mayor Jerry Perez said the law surrounding maquinitas is not black and white, “and there’s no sense getting into it if it’s gray.”
“I’m thinking it’s something that’s shady. Who’s going to want to play for prizes or teddy bears?” Perez asked.
Instead, he said to boost the city’s revenues, the administration is looking at ways to lure and grow businesses in the community.
Last week, Palmview officers raided an eight-liner business that had been in operation less than a day. Lt. Saul Valle said the fire marshal had received a complaint of a lot of vehicles parked at a former adult daycare facility on Palma Vista Drive. It has a flashing “Open” sign out front, and when he pulled the records for the site, he found a permit for construction, but nothing to indicate it was already in operation.
The fire marshal and officers entered the building, where Valle said the fire alarm wasn’t fully installed, electrical outlets were uncovered and 75 machines were running off of extension cards. Uvalle estimated about 20 machines were plugged into every three outlets. The city shut down the gameroom and interrogated the manager, who admitted the business had been paying out in cash to its customers, Uvalle said. Palmview seized $5,500 cash and officers are looking for the owner of business.
Peñitas recently held a meeting to approve a resolution against the eight-liner establishments. City Manager Oscar Cuellar said the city was getting a lot of inquiries from people who heard Peñitas would soon join La Joya and and Sullivan city in regulating the machines, but he questioned whether it is legal for cities to charge permit fees, pointing to state regulations regarding coin-operated machines, which limits city tax to $15.
“Some people are under the impression the city was giving them some kind of ‘wink-wink’ provision that they’re not going to raid them, and that’s not what we’re doing,” Cuellar said. “If we get some kind of information that they’re doing something illegal, we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to shut them down.”
As for La Joya’s eight-liner businesses, Salinas defended the city’s ordinance, saying lots of people pay to play the lottery and never win. Playing the machines relax people, he said.
He said the city itself should have shut down the eight-liner business in the old Dollar Store because it wasn’t up to fire code. On that, he said, they dropped the ball. But, he emphasized he still hadn’t heard from anybody over at the county, taking offense to the fact that county officers conducted the raid inside La Joya.
“If the county is going to go inside the city of La Joya, and they want to take over the police department, fine, we’ll just dismiss our police officers and let them.” Salinas said.