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Sullivan City starts accepting game room applications

Sullivan City started accepting game room applications on Wednesday.

After reviewing the applications, Sullivan City may issue permits to a maximum of five game rooms.

“If they are breaking the law, we are going to enforce it,” said Hidalgo County District Attorney Terry Palacios. “That’s all I can say.”

While slot machines aren’t legal in Texas, game rooms offer patrons the chance to play “amusement redemption machines,” which are nearly identical.

Texas prohibits the “amusement redemption machines” from rewarding players with cash.

Under state law, players may only receive “prizes, toys, or novelties, or a representation of value redeemable for those items, that have a wholesale value available from a single play of the game or device of not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once or $5, whichever is less,” according to the Texas Penal Code.

Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra, though, said he’s never come across a game room that actually follows the law.


A Starr County game room in September 2015. (Photo by Dave Hendricks / The Progress Times.)


“What we’re seeing is most of them try to skirt the law by giving out a piece of, usually, some type of metal — a token,” Guerra said. “And then they’re told where they can go and redeem that piece of metal for what they won.”

People who break the law may be charged with keeping a gambling place, gambling promotion or possession of a gambling device, equipment or paraphernalia. Each charge is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of one year in jail.

For many game rooms, the risk is worth the reward.

Documents filed in federal court suggest a game room in Willacy County paid out approximately $21 million in less than two years.

The game room, El Toro, rewarded players with silver-colored pellets. Players sold the pellets to a nearby business, Brittany’s Boutique.

From May 31, 2017, to Oct. 30, 2018, the boutique reported about $21 million in cash transactions, according to a criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutors.

Regulating game rooms allows local governments to cash in.

Sullivan City plans to charge game rooms $50,000 to apply for a permit. The city also plans to charge game rooms a $15,000 fee every quarter to renew the permit.

Along with the permit fees, Sullivan City plans to charge game rooms $50 per machine per quarter. The rules and regulations approved by Sullivan City would limit each game room to 200 machines.

While the game rooms may operate 24 hours a day, they can’t be located within 200 feet of a home, school, church, hospital or day care center.

Sullivan City drafted the rules, regulations and an accompanying ordinance with assistance from the Texas Game Room Owners Association. Neither attorney Robert Flores of McAllen, who represents the association, nor Mayor Alma Salinas could be reached for comment on Wednesday after the city started accepting applications.

Sullivan City also attempted to regulate game rooms in 2015.

Under the old ordinance, Sullivan City charged $3,000 per year for a permit and a quarterly fee of $750 per machine.

The game rooms in Sullivan City shut down in 2016, when law enforcement officers raided similar establishments in Starr County and La Joya.

Sullivan City, however, had already collected $423,000 in fees, according to information released under the Texas Public Information Act.

Ruben Villalon, a local businessman who paid for a game room permit in 2015, said he didn’t think Sullivan City should allow them to return.

“I don’t like the idea,” Villalon said. “Because I don’t think it’s going to be looking good for the city.”

Villalon, who ran unopposed for City Council during the May 2023 election cycle, said he didn’t think the game rooms would actually follow the law.

“It’s like gambling,” Villalon said. “And they’re not going to listen.”

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