Other Georgia cities say massage parlor regulations effective

While Macon and Bibb County officials work to regulate the massage-parlor industry, other Georgia communities say similar measures have ended, reduced or prevented problems with prostitution and other crimes.

Murray Weed, the city attorney for Doraville, said that city has had problems with massage parlors in the past and is considering revisions to improve its ordinances to attack crime and health risks.

“There’s always been an element of trying to prevent organized crime and human slavery in your community, and government clearly has an interest in preventing that type of activity,” Weed said.

Bibb County commissioners plan to discuss their own proposal Tuesday. The latest draft of the proposal would require background checks for business owners and anyone giving massages. Parlors would have to close by 10 p.m., and anyone giving a massage would have to be a massage-school graduate.

Meanwhile, Macon Councilman Erick Erickson said he will introduce a proposal later this month that limits body contact to professionals who are licensed by the state.

‘We don’t have any’

At least 122 Georgia cities and counties regulate massage parlors, according to a tally by the Middle Georgia Alliance to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT). The group is pushing for local regulations and wrote the first draft of Bibb County’s proposed ordinance. The group’s chairman, Andrew Silver of Mercer University, said regulations can cut back on problems even if they can’t eliminate them.

That opinion is echoed in the experience of several governments that The Telegraph contacted.

Larry Harris, the licensing manager for Augusta and Richmond County, said background checks and other procedures have reduced the problems. He thinks other governments should enact a similar ordinance.

“If you don’t have anything in place, you’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants,” Harris said.

Harris said legitimate massage therapists in the Augusta area wanted the ordinance because it gave a bad name to their business. He speculates the adoption of the measure may have pushed prostitution or other problems out to other areas. Augusta’s regulations also tie in with state massage licensing procedures launched in 2006.

“We haven’t had any illicit activity since the inception of that state license,” Harris said.

Jim Elliott, city attorney for Warner Robins, said a code adopted there in 1978 appears to have been effective. He said he hasn’t heard of any problems with massage parlors there since the mid-1990s. The city requires background checks of owners and anyone performing massage, requires parlors to close by midnight and blocks massages away from the business.

“For the most part, knock on wood, we haven’t had many issues,” he said.

Albany has treated massage parlors as adult entertainment businesses, like strip clubs, since at least 1993. Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson said he’s never heard of problems in his city from massage parlors.

“Those massage places on I-75 that are probably nefarious?” he said. “We don’t have any that I know of.”

Columbus and Muscogee County enforced massage-parlor business regulations from 1998 until the state passed its own regulations four years ago, said Yvonne Ivey, the occupation tax supervisor.

The city had a big problem with prostitution in the massage parlors before, but those went out of business after the city began requiring background checks and legitimate massage-school diplomas, she said. As a result, legitimate massage businesses made a rebound.

“It worked tremendously,” Ivey said.

Savannah’s massage parlor regulations, which require background checks and massage-school diplomas, have been in place since 1977.

Assistant City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said she’s heard of no problems with illicit activity or legitimate massage therapists inconvenienced by the ordinance.

“Things seem to be working very well,” she said.

Bibb County officials have said there’s only one massage parlor in the unincorporated county that could be a problem. That’s Four Seasons Sauna on Arkwright Road, where two employees were arrested on prostitution charges in 2008. One of those employees, In Won Kang, pleaded guilty and was fined $1,000 and given a year’s probation. The other employee, Eun Hee Lee, skipped a court appearance last year on the prostitution charge. She’s wanted by police.

An employee of Four Seasons Sauna said last week there was no manager there who could talk to The Telegraph. But a sign on the door showed the Bibb County’s proposal, if adopted, could have at least some effect. Four Seasons Sauna is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The county’s proposal says businesses would have to close by 10 p.m. and could not reopen before 8 a.m.

David Corr, a local leader of the Libertarian Party, told county commissioners earlier this month they have no business restricting the hours of a business. He described the proposal as the act of a “fascist Christian Taliban” and said there was no evidence of sex trafficking near Macon.

Silver acknowledges there have been no human trafficking charges filed near Macon. But he said the arrest of a 17-year-old on masturbation-for-hire charges is legal proof that modern-day sex slavery is here. A decade-old federal law says severe human trafficking includes “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by fraud, force or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

In a talk to social workers earlier this month about human trafficking, Silver said Macon has become well-known.

“We have become the red-light district of Georgia,” he said.

Spreading regulations, crime

Silver worries that clamping down on illicit massage parlors here may simply drive the parlors elsewhere.

He said he’s trying to communicate with people in Forsyth, Valdosta, Cordele and other places, encouraging them to enact their own ordinances to head off the problem.

“Maybe if everyone smashes down at the same time, we’ll break the Whack-A-Mole machine,” he said.

Monroe County Commissioner Michael Bilderback said he hopes to pre-empt problems by getting an ordinance passed there. Previous crackdowns on various crimes in Bibb County pushed criminals to Monroe County, he said.

“It’s just kind of a cat-and-mouse game with criminals,” he said. “We expect the same kind of activity with massage parlors. Criminals are going to continue with their behavior. It’s just a matter of finding a place where they can continue doing it.”

The state Board of Massage Therapy regulates businesses advertising “massage.” When people perform massages without a massage therapy license, the Macon-based board can write a cease-and-desist letter and fine people for later violations, said the board’s executive director, Brig Zimmerman.

The fines max out at $500 per offense. A review of two years of board minutes did not show any fines for businesses violating a cease-and-desist order.

In Friday’s only hearing in Macon, the state massage board issued a cease-and-desist letter to a man who had been giving chair massages in the middle of the Gwinnett Place Mall. Through a friend translating from Chinese, the man said he was a massage-school graduate who didn’t know he needed a license.

State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, has proposed tougher regulations that would turn a third violation of state regulations into a felony charge. Staton said cities and counties are free to regulate massage parlors as businesses.

Silver said his group thinks such business-license restrictions are a “no-brainer” and was surprised they weren’t quickly passed a year and a half ago, when they were proposed. He predicted regulations in Macon and Bibb County wouldn’t eliminate problems with massage parlors but could reduce them to a more “normal” level.

Silver said Macon has about 18 times as many massage parlors per resident as Washington, D.C.

“Right now this is growing like kudzu, and this criminal industry won’t stop growing until Macon decides to do something about it,” Silver said. “We’re not going to get rid of murder, we’re not going to get rid of robbery, we’re not going to get rid of pedophilia. You aim to fight these things and reduce them as much as possible, so they’re no longer doing harm to great numbers of people.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.