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.
- Palm Coast Looking to Other Cities for Guidance on Storefront Gambling Regulations
- Palm Coast Imposes 6-Month Moratorium on Gambling Halls Proliferating as “Internet Cafes”
- Why Flagler Beach Blocked Disabled Veterans’ Request For a Penny-Ante Gambling Hall
- Map: Palm Coast’s Gambling Halls
- The Seminole County Ordinance Banning Internet Cafes
- The Allied Veterans Court Action Against the Seminole Ban
- Worries About ‘Convenience Casinos’ in Florida
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.