BELTON — Time is running out for game room operators who want to operate legally in Bell County.
County officials are now warning owners of businesses that qualify as game rooms that they only have until the close of business Friday to apply for a county permit. While business owners would still be able to get the permit — part of a new county ordinance passed in July — after the deadline, their business would not be grandfathered out of some new restrictions.
State law defines game rooms as those businesses with six or more amusement redemption machines that allow players to win prizes completely, or partially, by chance.
Bell County Fire Marshal Chris Mahlstedt said the application only needs to be submitted by Friday, with the county giving game rooms up to 60 days to get necessary inspections.
“If they don’t have it by the 17th, then at that point they would have to shut down and start the process like they were a new game room,” Mahlstedt said.
Currently, Mahlstedt said only a game room in Killeen has submitted the needed paperwork as of Monday. Between four and five other game room owners are currently working through the process.
Game rooms that receive the permit, and were created before Jan. 1 of this year, are exempt from restrictions such as not being able to have a game room within 2,000 feet of a neighborhood, school or place of worship.
Mahlstedt said the county has been cooperating with local police departments in order to enforce the new law.
Law enforcement will need to determine if a business has a permit and if they are complying with the ordinance and state laws. State law limits game rooms to awarding players with non-cash merchandise prizes, such as toys or novelties, with a wholesale value of less than $5 or 10 times the amount charged to play.
“On the 17th, they will get a completed list of who is permitted,” Mahlstedt said. “From that point on, their officers will be able to go out and see if they are operating. The ones who are permitted, they will see if they are operating within the regulations.”
Mahlstedt said some game room owners have already expressed frustration over the ordinance’s new restrictions on operating hours. Under the ordinance, game rooms can only allow their games to be played from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., though they can offer other services outside those hours.
These business owners, Mahlstedt said, have discussed the possibility of suing the county over the restrictions.
“They feel like their clientele typically come after 8 p.m. and want to stay longer, so they were going to challenge it,” Mahlstedt said.
County Judge David Blackburn said it was still important to get the word out to game room owners about the deadline since law enforcement could soon start cracking down on businesses without a permit.
“This ordinance is going into effect and you need to get an application in if you are an existing business,” Blackburn said. “I am anticipating that we are going to hear from some that they didn’t know.”