TRENTON, Ga. — Police Officer Mike Norris said gambling isn’t yet a problem in this Dade County city, but he wants to hedge his bets.
He has asked city officials to outlaw all video gaming machines, even those legal under Georgia law. The city is studying the issue.
“Our Georgia state law has loopholes in it,” Mr. Norris said. “The city can have ordinances that enhance state law. It’s a problem that could get big.”
Video game machines are staples at stores like the Express Way on U.S. Highway 11.
The machines, with names such as Cadillac Jack and Amusement Game, are mounted in a cabinet. Players use buttons to match lines of colorful icons displayed on a screen to accumulate points.
Manager Barbi Price said three of the machines in her store net about $1,000 in revenue each month.
“It’s innocent entertainment, as far as I’m concerned,” Ms. Price said. “There are more important things I’m sure (the city) could be worrying about.”
The video game machines are legal in Georgia as long as they require some skill to play, and there are no cash payments. Stores can offer credit for more games or merchandise, but can’t reward players with tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets.
Mr. Norris said game room owners in Trenton have been careful to follow state code, but he fears less scrupulous vendors could come to town. And policing illegal gambling operations can be costly.
“Law enforcement’s hands are tied unless we send someone in constantly to keep on playing until they pay them out in cash,” Mr. Norris said. “That can cost several thousands of dollars to get them to trust one person enough to pay out in cash.”
Rossville Mayor Johnny Baker said game room owners in his town found ways to circumvent the law.
“You play games with people, give them a Wal-Mart (gift card) and they go out to Wal-Mart and buy a riding lawn mower, roll it back in (the store) and get cash back,” Mr. Baker said. “That’s what happened years and years ago.”
Gambling became so rampant that Rossville became known to some as “Ross Vegas,” a title town leaders have tried to shake.
The city and Georgia Bureau of Investigation took several swipes at gambling, including adopting ordinances that included a license fee on every machine in town.
That fee was lifted in February 2007 when the Walker County town adopted a strict policy that prevents businesses from having more than six machines. Video game machines cannot constitute more than 50 percent of a business’ total revenue, either.
Businesses that violate Rossville’s rules face fines of up to $1,000 and can be stripped of their game room license. Players who take cash payments can be fined up to $500.
So far, no businesses in Rossville have applied for a game room license under the new code.
“It is our opinion that we don’t want these machines in our town,” the mayor said. “It led to corruption, and we were in a circle of keeping our police department trying to govern these things. It was a never-ending battle.”
It’s a battle some law enforcement officers said can’t be won.
Dade County Sheriff Patrick Cannon said several stores in his jurisdiction have game rooms. He said officers conduct random compliance checks, but he says it’s not his department’s top priority because of the difficulty in making arrests.
“The law is so vague on this,” Sheriff Cannon said. “And so far store owners have been responsible.”
But Mr. Norris, who has announced he will seek election to the sheriff’s post, said the game machines could lead to crimes other than gambling and can leave families impoverished.
“If you let gambling get started, it leads to a lot of other trouble,” Mr. Norris said. “Everybody’s business is their own. But if you spend your grocery money that week (on games), they have to go out and get their grocery money from somewhere.”