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State Authorities: Belleview Not A “Safe Harbor” For Illegal Gambling

By Bryce Abshier

According to the Florida Gaming Control Commission, businesses like the eight “Fish Games” or “Internet Cafe” establishments plastered across Belleview are likely violating state law. At these businesses, patrons win points on electronic gaming devices. The points can then be redeemed for cold, hard cash.

Eric Carr, Director of External Affairs for the Florida Gaming Control Commission, did not mince his words when he told The Voice that illegal slot machines include those commonly called “fish games” or “fish tables”.

“Slot machines are illegal in Florida. There is no exception under Florida law for so-called “skill based” slot machines. That is a myth,” wrote Carr in an email to The Voice. “The only exceptions are for slot machines located at 8 licensed pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties and certain tribal casinos,” he went on.

“These legal slot machines are inspected for fairness and have guaranteed win rates. Illegal slot machines, including ones commonly referred to as “fish games” or “fish tables,” offer no such protections,” Carr wrote.

According to Carr, even though the City of Belleview may allow these businesses to operate, the owners are subject to both criminal prosecution and civil liability. “A municipal ordinance that attempts to offer safe harbor for such illegal slot machines has zero effect and provides no safeguard against prosecution. Consequently, owners and operators of any “adult arcade” or “internet café” offering illegal slot machine gaming are subject to both civil and criminal penalties,” Carr wrote.

When asked if a municipal government shares any liability in allowing these potentially illegal gambling operations to do business, Carr cited Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials and Employees.

“Certain municipal officials and employees are subject to Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials and Employees,” wrote Carr. “The Code contains safeguards designed to protect the public trust. Violations of the Code could result in civil and criminal sanctions,” Carr added.

Over $100,000 Donated To The City

Not including the annual fees and business taxes, city officials report over $100,000 in additional donations over the last three years made by the various cafes ($16,560 in 2021, $56,606 in 2022 and $32,000 to date in 2023). These donations are earmarked as “community funds” and are on top of the regular city fees that these businesses must pay.

To mirror their generous donations, the business owners also pay a business tax of $52.05, an annual administration fee of $5,000.00, and an annual fee of $100.00 per game device. For the 2022/2023 fiscal year, Belleview collected $53,500 in device fees, $40,000 in annual registrations and $416.40 in business tax.

So while the rest of Marion County has outlawed these types of businesses, they thrive on in Belleview.

The high business taxes, exorbitant donations, and frequently packed parking lots have likely made many in Belleview wonder: just how much money do these places make?

A Tampa Bay Times article, published on May 16, 2023, outlined the incredible profits these types of businesses can rake in. “An industry operator said a well-run arcade makes $20,000 to $60,000 in profit a month and shared receipts to prove it,” wrote reporter Christopher Spata. “They’re cheap to open, and pop up between mini-marts and laundromats, clustered in lower-income neighborhoods.”

Often thriving in lower-income neighborhoods, many consider these businesses to have a problematic reputation. The Florida Gaming Control Commission warns that these businesses are “often associated with organized crime, money laundering, fraud, drugs, prostitution, and pose a general risk to the players and communities in which they exist.”

If that account is true, it could be sour news for the residents of Belleview, the last stronghold of “Fish Games” in Marion County. Because they are outlawed everywhere else, Belleview would effectively be a magnet for all of this undesirable behavior.

Sheriff, AARP warn of danger

A county ordinance forbids any type of “fish games” or “internet cafe” establishment from opening in unincorporated Marion County. According to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, this is for the safety of patrons. Lieutenant Paul Bloom, MCSO Public Information Director explained why in a May email to The Voice. “They became a large problem and truly a danger to patrons because of the frequency of armed robberies occurring at these places” wrote Lieutenant Bloom.

Belleview Police only report a total of 18 disturbance calls to these businesses in the last two years. Belleview’s municipal code requires many safety regulations that these businesses must meet. These include requiring a licensed security guard and limiting hours of operation from 11:00 am to 2:00 am.

The American Association of Retired Persons also released a recent warning statement, telling seniors to stay clear of these types of businesses. Unlike licensed and regulated casinos, internet cafe establishments offer “zero consumer protections, no guarantee of fair play, and no recourse if an operator disappears with the customer’s money,” said the AARP. “Operating outside of Florida law, these unlawful and unregulated gaming establishments prey upon Florida’s vulnerable and aging adult populations, subjecting consumers to high risks of fraud, cheating, and theft.”

Belleview Code stomps out competition

According to the city of Belleview’s municipal code, if an internet cafe closes, another will not replace it due to an ordinance signed June 1, 2021. The ordinance limits the number that can be open inside the city to five. While likely intended to stop even more internet cafes from opening in Belleview, this could bolster the current owner’s pocketbooks. What was probably already a lucrative operation is now coupled with no threat of added competition. Not only are they the only game in town, they’re the only game in a 1,660 square mile county.

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