Macon considers tighter rules on video gambling

jgaines@macon.comSeptember 5, 2012 

Macon City Council is considering new regulations on “coin-operated amusement machines” -- primarily video poker -- in an attempt to curb illegal gambling.

Councilman Virgil Watkins sponsored an ordinance that passed the council’s Appropriations Committee in a 3-1 vote Wednesday. Councilwoman Elaine Lucas voted against it, and Councilman Henry Ficklin was absent.

Until this year the state prohibited cities from regulating the machines, but a new law allows some limited standards, Watkins said. The Georgia Municipal Association has written a model ordinance to comply with those, he said.

“This is pretty much the recommended ordinance to address it,” Watkins said.

The ordinance says a business can have no more than nine Class B game machines, and those must be in plain view of all customers, not hidden in a back room. Owners would be required to report their earnings monthly to the city’s business license office, and the machines’ earnings couldn’t be more than half of the business’ total income.

Businesses with such machines couldn’t be within 100 yards of a church, alcohol-treatment center or Macon Housing Authority property, or 200 yards of a school. Owners would have to post signs warning that it’s illegal for machines to pay out money, or promise any item worth more than $5.

Violators could have their alcohol or business licenses revoked. That’s a substantial change, said Assistant City Attorney Stuart Morelli. Currently, machine owners would have to be caught allowing gambling three times within a 30-day period to face a serious penalty, he said. The new ordinance would allow license revocation for one instance, Morelli said.

“Just to clarify, what constitutes a Class B machine?” Chairman Tom Ellington asked.

There’s a complicated legal definition, but essentially it’s aimed at video poker machines that allow players to carry over “points” from game to game, Morelli said.

The implication is that accumulated points can be exchanged for cash -- in effect, gambling on video card games.

Watkins said he thinks “95 percent” of those who operate such machines engage in illegal practices, but he acknowledged that it’s not even clear how many there are in the city.

Lucas said all such operators shouldn’t be painted as criminals, and she urged the committee to wait until business owners who have gaming machines could come to City Hall and address council members.

Her motion to tone down the blanket accusation of wrongdoing in the ordinance’s introduction passed 4-0, but nevertheless the committee passed the measure as a whole. It could come before the Sept. 18 full council meeting for final approval.

SPLOST road work

The committee approved use of special purpose local option sales tax money on three road projects, two near downtown Macon and one on the east side. The SPLOST that voters approved in November includes money for unspecified road work. Amanda Deaton, assistant chief administrative office for budget and planning, said a specific project list is being developed.

For now, projects are coming up individually. One is to spend $160,000 on road and sidewalk improvements along New Street, next to The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

Tom Sands, The Medical Center’s vice president for professional services, said a project to upgrade the adjacent stretch of Forsyth and Pine streets should see construction start in a few weeks.

It’s been planned for years and is largely funded by a state grant. It could save about $50,000 in the long run to add in the New Street work and do it at the same time, he said.

The request was approved 4-0.

The other two street-work ordinances got 3-0 approval. They were considered early in the meeting, and Watkins arrived half an hour late.

One is to fund the last pieces of building a roundabout at the corner of College and Oglethorpe streets next to Tattnall Square Park with $55,000. There’s already more than $1 million available from grants and local contributions for work on College Street between Oglethorpe and Coleman Avenue, said Pat Madison, executive director of the College Hill Alliance.

A roundabout for the Oglethorpe and College corner has been in the College Hill master plan for years, and all that’s now needed is money for the central traffic island and the “splitter islands” approaching the circle, he said.

Finally came $20,000 to improve the intersection of Upper River Road, Twin Pines Drive and Woodland Drive. That’s been a problem for years, said Councilman Rick Hutto, the ordinance’s sponsor. The money will create a slight turn in the road to slow down speeders, he said.

Hutto said a speed counter found that out of 3,000 cars which used the intersection in a week, 23 percent of them were travelling faster than 61 mph in a 35-mph zone.

“The reason we know (they were going) 61 is, that’s the maximum it would clock,” he said. The committee approved the ordinance in a 3-0 vote.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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