Panel OKs additional amusement devices

City bars, restaurants and stores could sharply increase number of games

April 19, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

An amended bill that would permit Baltimore bars, restaurants and corner stores to drastically increase the number of video poker games, pool tables and jukeboxes in their establishments was approved by a City Council committee yesterday.

Members of the Land Use and Transportation Committee approved the bill last year, but before the full council could vote on it, the bill was withdrawn and sent back to the committee.

Bar owners had expressed concern about the possible proliferation of amusement devices at convenience stores.

Adopted were amendments that would limit the total number of amusement devices in an establishment to five, not including pool tables, jukeboxes and shuffleboard games. Those types of games and machines also would be limited to five total. Licensing fees would nearly double - from $180 per device to $350 - if the bill is adopted by the full council.

However, an amendment to the bill that would have limited the addition of new gaming devices at stores and gas stations failed yesterday.

Now that the bill has been voted out of committee, it could come up for a final vote by the full council as early as Monday.

"What we have today is a much better bill," said Councilman James B. Kraft, vice chairman of the land use committee.

The increased licensing fee could result in additional revenue to the city, according to a report by city budget experts.

Last year, the city collected $395,640 in such fees on video poker games alone. That figure does not include pool tables and other amusement devices, which also must be licensed.

Despite financial benefit, the bill did not garner unanimous committee support.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the bill would still have a negative impact on neighborhoods in that it would nearly double the number of machines in bars and restaurants.

"It does not deserve a second breath of life," said Clarke, who with Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. voted against the revised bill.

The legislation, which was introduced in November 2005, has been an issue in that it was created a few days after bar and restaurant owners were warned by the city that inspectors would begin enforcing zoning laws limiting the number of devices based on an establishment's square footage.

The notice came on the heels of questioning by a researcher for the nonprofit Abell Foundation who was putting together a report on illegal gambling.

The report, which was released in January last year, included information about bars and stores that had too many games, as well as interviews with police who had witnessed cash payouts on the games, which is illegal.

Voting in support of the amended bill yesterday were council members Kraft, Sharon Green Middleton, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, chairman of the land use committee, abstained from the vote because he owns a bar with his family that has amusement devices.

Last year, city officials told The Sun that Reisinger's Morrell Park bar was in violation of the zoning code, but the councilman said yesterday that those officials were wrong. He said his wife, who runs the bar, called Good Times Tavern, put one of the amusement devices in a backroom until the city confirmed that she could place it back in the bar.

A number of bar and store owners have expressed surprise that they had more games than they should.

In recent years, the city has not actively enforced the zoning code regarding amusement devices ,and many business owners had added machines without thought.

More than 50 businesses have filed appeals in recent years in an attempt to keep their games. The appeals have been on hold in hopes that new legislation might settle the issue.

David Tanner, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, said that based on a reporter's description of the revised bill, many of the appeals would be dropped.

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