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Like Palm Coast, Bunnell Wrestles With Gambling Posing as Games–and Punts

| August 10, 2011

Gambling by any other name is intruding on Flagler County's perception of itself as a morally leafy place. A gambling parlor at European Village. (© FlaglerLive)

Twice in the last two years, Bunnell made it clear that the small city and its embattled police department didn’t need the Flagler County Sheriff. On Monday, a divided Bunnell City Commission turned to the sheriff for help on one matter: to determine for Bunnell whether Internet cafes rate as gambling, and if so, whether the sheriff would treat them as such under law—which would mean they’d be barred from the city.

The 3-2 vote to call in the sheriff was led by Commissioner Elbert Tucker who, in fairness to Tucker, is the one voice on the commission who since last year has been looking for the sheriff to take over all law enforcement responsibilities in the city. He’s opposed to waging war on gambling halls. “Our society has tried to legislate morals,” Tucker said. “Failed pretty miserably, so far, in my lifetime.”

Bunnell is in the midst of a renewed debate over the gambling halls, or the existence of gambling machines in businesses that focus on other things.

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In 2009, the city adopted an ordinance regulating so-called adult arcades. The moment a single gambling machine is introduced in any business, that business is considered an adult arcade unless it’s non-profit: those places can have up to five gambling machines before being considered an arcade. At least nine businesses in Bunnell have gambling machines, placing them in violation of the city’s ordinance. To accommodate them, the city rewrote the ordinance so that any business could have as many gambling machines as it wants as long as it doesn’t derive more than 50 percent of its revenue from them. As long as it stays under that threshold, it’s not an “adult arcade.” The moment it crosses the threshold, it becomes an arcade—and therefore would be barred from the city.

The current ordinance also restricts adult arcades to its light-industrial district. The proposed ordinance eliminates that restriction: gambling machines could be in any business anywhere in the business district. The old ordinance forbade gambling halls (or “arcades”) from being within a certain distance of schools or churches. The proposed ordinance does away with that, too. The only distance restriction is between the gambling sites themselves, so the city isn’t overrun with them. Think of it as Vegas lite. That proposal was approved by the planning board.

The proposal came before the Bunnell City Commission Monday evening, and, unlike most other city business, packed its chambers (relatively speaking). Two commissioners—Rogers and Daisy Henry—want all arcades eliminated from the city. Commissioners Tucker and Jenny Crain-Brady don’t. They don’t think the city should be legislating  morality. Mayor Catherine Robinson was conflicted. When Rogers moved to reject the ordinance, his proposal was trumped by Tucker’s to table the issue for now and wait on the Sheriff’s response. Robinson lent her support to that approach.

The issue is as debatable as it’s been because of Florida’s John Kerry-like definition of gambling: The state is against gambling until it is for it: it calls casinos gambling. It doesn’t call either the lottery or slot machines and Internet cafes gambling.

Bunnell’s attorney, Sid Nowell, lucidly summed up the paradox: “We are in the proverbial gray area,” Nowell said. “My reading of the statute, the definition of gambling, I don’t think there’s any question that this falls under the definition of gambling. If you look at the test, whether there’s a game of chance or whether it requires any skill, in most of these operations, no skill is required. You hit a button, up pops a cherry or whatever else, and you go collect money. So I think it’d be hard-pressed for anybody to say that it doesn’t fall under the current definition of gambling. Now, having said that, our state Legislature has elected not to do anything about clarifying this issue, and has punted to the state attorney, and the state attorney has taken a position they’re not going to enforce the existing statute unless the local sheriff determines that the activity is gambling. Obviously most of the local sheriffs have turned their heads.”

So it was Bunnell’s turn to punt to the sheriff. The sheriff is not likely to endorse a crackdown on gambling parlors, however loosely defined as “internet cafes” or “adult arcades” or non-profit penny arcades for the best causes: Palm Coast is going through its own legal wrangles over the gambling halls. It has about seven of them. It’s imposed a moratorium on new ones. But it has a matter of months to decide how to handle them permanently. So far, asking the sheriff to go after them hasn’t been among Palm Coast’s options—unless Palm Coast is suddenly inspired by Bunnell. And the sheriff isn’t eager to do Bunnell any favors.

Commissioner John Rogers didn’t think the punt necessary: “If Chief Jones decides it’s gambling” Rogers said, referring to Arthur Jones, Bunnell’s police chief, “and goes in there and arrests folks, they will prosecute.” Rogers said he’d had confirmation of the fact from the state attorney’s office.

Alone among his fellow-commissioners, Rogers decided to investigate the gambling halls before the meeting and had lengthy discussions with Nowell. One of the places he visited is Lucky Day Sweepstakes on State Road 100, in the Winn Dixie shopping center (featured in a story in May). “It looks like a casino.” Rogers says. “They had 126 machines there. They had about 28 people, and most of them are elderly, over the age of 65. I spoke to one lady, she said she’d won $3,800 there. But it cost her three grand to do it. She stayed there, her and a partner, and put $3,000 in the machine, and they finally won $3,800 and they took off.”

Rogers’s point was that it was unquestionably a gambling operation, and should be treated as such. Tucker, usually an ally, didn’t buy it.

“The state of Florida has chosen not to recognize the lottery as gambling,” Tucker said. “We have at least six establishments in Bunnell sell lottery tickets all day long and half the night. There may be a space of time when we don’t sell them between midnight and six, but that’s absolute gambling, to me, and it goes on within 1,000 feet or 1,500 feet of the schools. It’s gambling. And yet it’s done, it’s been done for 20 years or 18 years, however long it’s been in effect, so choose your poison.”

“I’ve never seen nobody buy $3,000 of lottery tickets,” Rogers responded wryly.

Commissioners were setting up for a vote, but not before a spirited, at times entertaining—if often exaggerated—debate over the issue, featuring eloquent speeches by the commissioners or constituents and rarely lacking passion. Twelve people addressed the commissioners, and like a baseball line-up, literally batted around as four of the 12 returned for a second crack at the public participation portion.

Five of those who spoke were opposed to gambling in any form, including its many shapes: Two pastors and three residents. Seven were in favor of the proposed ordinance—in other words, in favor of deregulating gambling locations. Not a single one of them was a mere resident. Five either owned or were members of non-profit organizations that have gambling machines and say they depend on the revenue to do their good works. One, Marvin Sheets, is the owner of Marvin’s Garden, the shopping center, where an Internet café was located until it closed and the city’s regulation forbid a new one from opening in its place. And another, Mark Langello, owns a large commercial strip of his own where gambling sites could fill empty storefronts.

Whatever their views, both sides were equally convincing: Rogers cited the fatal shooting at an Allied Veterans gambling hall in Seminole County back in April as proof that the gambling halls attract crime. In fact, there is no such proof beyond the usual crime that any business, including convenience stores, gas stations and banks, might attract. In Palm Coast, there’s been no correlation at all between gambling halls and crime. And the gambling halls themselves, including the one Rogers visited, are usually frequented by people on Medicare, not on parole. In other words they tend to be bored, lonely, elderly people with money to spend, though the winnings are low.

Opponents of the gambling hall cited morals, religion and—the universal trump card in such arguments—children.  “While many of us have religion,” Langello countered, “many of us have our own faith. One of the principal foundings of this country was that we weren’t going to have the government run by religion, because if we start talking about religion in this conversation, what religion are we going to follow? Whose religion will it be? I think you’ll have a hard time talking about morals. First of all many of the churches have raffles and a bingo. That’s plenty of gambling.”

One of the people opposing the loosened regulations was Bill Baxley, who recently lost by a hair to Rogers, and who will be running for Bunnell commission again, making his position of particular interest. “Mr. Tucker and also the other ones that said that the lottery is gambling, which you’re correct,” Baxley said, “but if someone goes and jumps off a bridge are you going to go jump off behind them? I don’t think so. And by us adopting these laws or rules that we’re going to apply, we’re asking people that don’t have the money, especially in these times, to go and spend that money that they could be buying food for their family, milk for their kids, or whatever, and they go home and they’ve lost every dime they have. This has happened over and over and over. And when you have that happening, then what’s the next thing that’s going to be happening? They’re going to be breaking into your house, they’re going to be robbing stores.”

Mayor Robinson recalled the previous occasion that drew out crowds over the gambling issue. Businesses, for-profit and non-profit, “came up one after the other telling us this testament to these machines that they have in these businesses. That’s the concern I have is that we’ve moved to another realm of getting revenue to be able to keep business open, and that’s how fragile the business community is. Are they going to go under if we pull them out of their businesses? I don’t know that. Will they go in a back room somewhere and do high stakes? I don’t know that either.”

The first applause of the evening–first of many, on both sides–went to Rogers when he summed up his position: “I believe in my heart that we were elected to watch out for the benefit of the community, and this is not going to benefit the community. There is no way having these gambling parlors in our city is going to benefit the community. It might benefit the owners of the property, the owners of the parlors. It’s not going to benefit the citizens of Bunnell, and we were elected by the citizens of Bunnell to be the gatekeepers of the city.”

Depending on the sheriff’s response, there will be a sequel to Bunnell’s gambling quandary.

15 Responses for “Like Palm Coast, Bunnell Wrestles With Gambling Posing as Games–and Punts”

  1. WillIam says:

    “the city rewrote the ordinance so that any business could have as many gambling machines as it wants as long as it doesn’t derive more than 50 percent of its revenue from them.”

    Sound like the ordinance is yet another example of work coming from a half-brained bureacrat with no business experience and no training in preparing or enforcing ordinances. But hell, it is “good enuf for guvment work” I suppose.

    Just four quick thoughts…

    First, how is the City going to monitor these businesses revenue stream to determine whether it is above or below 50 percent. Isn’t that proprietary information?

    Second, is staff really going to have the time (and competence) to examine the books to make a determination in the event that a business made these records available?

    Third, Are they talking about daily revenue, monthly revenue, yearly, bi-annual, etc.? The lack of specificity makes one think that this will be another law on the books with no enforcement.

    Fourth, Bunnell can’t even enforce the laws it has on the books now. Coming up with this criteria doesn’t even pass the straight face test. What a joke!

  2. William G says:

    “the city rewrote the ordinance so that any business could have as many gambling machines as it wants as long as it doesn’t derive more than 50 percent of its revenue from them.”

    These lost cost games are fun, and harm no-one. They are no different or harmful than Bingo, lottery tickets, or on-line payments made for lucky advertising coupons from McDonalds and others, or for that matter games at the fair. We cannot pick and chose this little gambling is OK, that little gambling is OK, but your gambling is fun so it is not OK. Selected, and very undemocratic manipulation of businesses is ignorant and violates human rights in the US. There is no joke here, just very narrow minded half wits trying to control everything and everybody around them. Leave the people alone that enjoy this entertaining, low cost diversion. Hell, just mind your own business.

  3. Sam says:

    Yea, I see the losers coming in and out of the one next to the BP station. Cops are there 4 times a day. There now asking people getting gas for spare change. Time to close this garbage DOWN !

  4. Haw Creek Girl says:

    With all due respect to Mr Tucker……the Florida lotto was created on the premise of benefiting public education. So, yes, while it is indeed gambling…it was gambling with an intended positive impact with the proceeds. With the gambling “parlors” there is no third party receiver of any kind to benefit from the enterprise. Just a small point to be considered here. Also, with all due respect to Mr Rogers…..I have seen 3,000 spent on lottery tickets and the purchaser was no more able to afford them than those who frequent the “parlors.” Unfortunately, many elderly and lower socio-economic groups are more prone to “bet the bank” because in their case it’s not much too lose and the hope of a windfall gets the better of their logic. The citizens of Bunnell would more than likely NOT benefit from such business but I must ask if we can limit gambling then why would we stop there? Can we eliminate establishments that sell pornographic material, drug parephenalia or alcoholic beverages? I personally prefer those establishments to be somewhere else other than “my backyard” but we are a free country and as Mr Tucker pointed out prohibition and all it’s kin have usually been ran out of town on a rail.

  5. Justhinkn says:

    Bill Baxley has me confused. His comment ….we’ll be asking people to go and spend money they don’t have……makes me wonder where he got this idea. No public official is asking anyone to go and spend their money in these establishments. Maybe he is mixing up the promotions done by the lottery.

    Bill also sounds like he knows how each person should spend their pittence of cash. How much milk, canned goods, chips and bacon, should be purchased. I had no idea that if Bills spending policy is followed it will end home and business break-ins. Go Bill.

  6. Justhinkn says:

    John Rodgers talks about benefiting the community. Protecting the citizens. Being a gate keeper. Unless Bunnell has become a major tourist destination over the past year, where does John think all the people who frequent these “gambling ” joints come from? Look around John, these people are the citizens. If the statement is true, there is concern the establishments will “over-runn” the community, then there must be quite a few people wanting to participate in these gambling halls.

  7. Justhinkn says:

    One more idea. Since people love to entertain themselves playing slot machines, and since its a proven fact the activity can generate large profits, and that Bunnell could use some extra cash, why not open some honest Slot Machine Parlors. Regulate and tax the business. Use the money to improve services to all citizens and get on with living life to its fullest.

  8. Bill Baxley says:

    Justhinkn: you stated, “Bill Baxley has me confused.” Please let me explain why I am against this ordinance.
    Florida Gambling Statute # 849.08 Gambling. Whoever plays or engages in any game at cards, keno, roulette, faro or other GAMES OF CHANCE, at any place, by any device whatever, for money or other thing of value, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s.775.083.
    At the meeting, the city attorney Mr. Nowell stated after reading the statue this falls under the definition of gambling. Mr Nowell also stated this was a gray area because the Legislature has elected not to do anything about clarifying the issue.
    Its time for the Florida Legislature to clarify the “gray area” in state law that is being exploited across the state to establish Internet Cafes thinly disguised gambling parlors that prey on senior citizens and the poor. By some estimates there are as many as 14000 strip mall casinos operating across the state, generating an estimated $1 billion annually in revenue.
    As law enforcement across the state scramble to address the growing crime problem associated with the Internet Cafes, as well as attempt to determine whether the cafes are themselves illegal, local municipalities have taken different approaches to the problem, some banning them entirely, others placing temporary moratoriums. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, has introduced for the 2012 legislative
    session, another bill to outlaw the Internet Cafes. If this bill passes it will over trump any ordinance we pass.
    Second: Florid Council on Compulsive Gambling (FCCG) director Pat Fowler told Bloomberg Business Week the presence of Internet Cafes in local communities is harmful to citizens who are compulsive gamblers or can become addicted to gambling. Flowers council has begun to track the impact of Internet Cafes on callers to her help line. The finding were 89% were suffering from depression, 24% were unemployed or disabled, and 37% said they had committed illegal acts to finance their gambling.
    You are entitled to your opinion and I mine, but pleas get your facts straight. The new ordinance would allow 4 full fledged Internet Cafes plus the 9 business that already have machines.

  9. PJ says:

    Until the state says it’s a local issue or they act on it correctly lets just tax it locally. Manage the issue for profit to the city. It’s a not so urgent need other than for the non-profit clubs in Bunnell that need the revenue. Outlawing the machines could put many of these clubs out of business. So just tax each machine that is not a non-profit. If there is excessive police activity at a specfic location then use ordinance’s to put them out of business.

    Personally I would be suspect to a non-regulated gambling joint. My guess is that they fix odds against the player and because there is no inspector to check it’s function they are just ripping you off. So you won’t see PJ in any of these joints except the non-profits for a good cold one!

  10. Justhinkn says:

    I don’t know you, but I’m guessing your a nice fellow. And believe it or not, I agree with a few of your points. (there are some laws that need clarification).
    But getting back to the “FACTS” and getting them straight, you were quoted in the article as saying, “we’re asking people who don’t have the money……to go and spend that money…..”
    That is a fact.
    My confusion comes in finding out who your talking about that is going to be asking these poor folks to go and spend their money gambling. And how did you find out how much money these people have? Also where did you come across the information that these gamblers lose every dime.
    Bill, I believe your caught in the stereotype of the hate gambling hype.
    My findings lead me to believe most of these people have a sound financial base. They go and entertain themselves with friends as an evening out. Much like you might do in going for dinner and drinks at the country club.
    This gambling venue would not be my choice, but I don’t ride motorcycles, skydive, climb mountians, or raft down the rapids of the Colorado River. Those things are expensive and dangerous. But I’m not going to try to deny othere the right to do them.

  11. Justhinkn says:

    You don’t need to explain to me why your against the ordinance. Its your right as an American to have your own opinion. You can be for or against anything you chose.
    But Bill, don’t you find Statute 849.08 a bit confusing? “Whoever plays or engages….in any games….at any place…for anything of value….shall be guilty….” By the time all the exceptions to the law are added it becomes meanless to most people.
    The same Florida that is enforcing (selectively) this law operates the largest gambling business in the state. They have approved the pari-mutuel wagering system for a selected few since 1931. There are bingo parlors, card rooms, slot parlors, card rooms, sports betting, gambling ships, and Indian Casinos across the state.
    Your holding on to the 849.08 Statute, has you on weak and shifting sand. Come on Bill, join the freedom express of the 21st century.

  12. Bill Baxley says:

    I am at an disadvantage here, you claim not to know me, maybe not but I am sure you have heard of me as most of the people that read these comments. I did not hide behind a nick name or an initial. I have been living in this area approximately 30 years and I am very concerned about my fellow citizens. I am very active in my community, I have been attending the commissioners meetings for over a year. I am on the Planing and Zoning Board. Who are you? Do you live in Bunnell? Have you attended any commissioner meeting?
    Are you serving your community? Are you concerned about your fellow citizens? I would be interested in hearing the answers to these questions. When I hear from you I will continue this conversation.

  13. Justhinkn says:

    Bill, let me say it again; I do not know you. I could not pick you out of a line-up. I don’t want to burst your bubble but I had never heard of you until I read your comments in the article we are discussing. My comments were made in reference to your statements about gambling. Nothing personal.
    My opinion is that although you might be an astute and concerned public figure, your statements about gambling and gamblers lead me to believe you are limited in your knowledge and understanding of both. I would also recommend you do a little research on addiction and its role in compulsive gambling behavior. ( Harvard Medical School’s Howard Shaffer Ph.D , has considerable information available on their web-site).
    Bill I congratulate you on your community service. Thirty years is a lengthy effort in helping people by any standard. I will answer a few of your inquiries, although the discussion of the issues at hand is most important to me.
    I too have served the people. For over 42 years, I have worked for the citizens of Florida. From the State, and County levels, and now in the private sector, I continue my service. I have served the larger community from Pensacola to Miami. From the Governors office to local school boards and zoning offices I have provided service.
    My current interest is the revamping of the Florida approach to legalizing and regulating the gambling industry. I have a special interest in having a basic education provided to the public ABOUT gambling. I say; give the public an opportunity to educate themselves about gambling and then let them chose to participate or abstain. A choice based on an education.

    I have exchanged ideas, written opinions, provided research and met personally with state officials about the gambling issues. I am adding your name to my list.

    I thank you for engaging in this friendly debate. This is what America is all about. You can bet on it!

  14. Bill Baxley says:

    I would like to apologize, when i made the statement above about hiding behind a nickname or initial, I fully understand why some of you have to.

    My comment was directed at Justhinkn

  15. Art says:

    In my opinion asking the sheriff to make a decision concerning the legality of Internet Cafés and or any other establishment that has gaming machines, is an exercise in futility.
    The sheriff is a politician and will take whatever course of action, or lack thereof, he deems most beneficial to his reelection, period!

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