By Bryce Abshier – Contact Bryce@TheVOSM.net
Internet Cafés are officially prohibited in Belleview, with the final reading of ordinance 2023-11 passing by a measure of 4-0. Belleview City Commissioner Mike Goldman was not present for the vote.
The public hearing, held on Tuesday, September 19 was not without dramatic moments. One internet café owner, Mr. Akash Patel, who provided an address to his Sarasota home, offered the City of Belleview an even more lucrative arrangement by paying $24,000 every quarter to stay in business.
“What we would like to present to you guys is, White Springs offers a fee-based license that is due every quarter to help cover the cost of having whatever the city needs to use it for. Their’s is $24,000 every three months. We’re willing to provide those necessary funds for the city to use in helping regulate and make it easier on them,” said Patel. He was referring to an arrangement with White Springs, Florida, a city with a population of about 800 according to the latest census.
He then provided Belleview’s City Clerk with a copy of the agreement he has with White Springs. Mayor Christine Dobkowski disclosed that she had already received this information from some internet café owners. “I will say for ex parte communication that some of the internet café owners brought this to me about a week ago, so I already had a copy of that,” said Dobkowski.
This exorbitant offer may make some wonder, could the City of Belleview have brought in even more revenue in their arrangement with the cafés? These eight businesses collectively paid a total of $93,916.40 in city fees for the 2022/2023 fiscal year. The proposed arrangement from Mr. Patel would hypothetically garner $768,000 yearly from the eight businesses. Even if that kind of money was offered when Belleview decided to allow these businesses in 2021, the city may have not accepted it due to the optics of the amount and the perception it creates.
At earlier city commission meetings in 2021, higher administration fees were discussed but ultimately decided against because of how it would affect the public opinion. “From an optics standpoint, us asking for $10,000 every year along with $100 a machine. It looks like we’re using these things as a cash cow,” said commissioner Goldman at a meeting in May of 2021. The city eventually lowered the yearly $10,000 admin fee to $5,000. However, poor optics did not stop the city from receiving $118,766 in additional donations from these businesses since 2021.
Local businessman Travis Thorpe, who was vocal about his displeasure with cafés at the first hearing, again spoke at the final hearing. “There isn’t going to be a single Belleview resident that gets up here and says, ‘Hey, we wanted these places here and we want them to stay’. But we’ve got them from Sarasota coming offering to drop 25 grand every quarter on you,” said Thorpe.
As Thorpe went on to speak during his allotted time before the commission, a restless crowd seemed to have trouble controlling themselves, as they attempted to shout over him at the podium. This prompted Mayor Dobkowski to attempt to bring back a sense of order. “I need everyone to refrain from speaking while we have a speaker at the podium, you can only speak if you come to podium and speak to the commission,” she said.
Less than a minute later, some audience members continued to shout over Thorpe. “I’m going to say it again, if you cannot refrain from speaking, you’ll have to leave the room,” Dobkowski warned. Shortly after, additional uniformed Belleview Police officers entered the room and the unnecessary shouting stopped.
One internet cafe proponent, an Ocklawaha man, told commissioners that most patrons “actually do win”. He went on to argue these business should stay open because, amongst other reasons, they provide patrons with soda and chips. “They come in there with a dollar, they go out of there with two or three bags of chips, two or three sodas, are y’all providing that?”
“Amen!,” exclaimed another internet cafe enthusiast from the audience, who at this point had been told not to speak twice.
Much like the first public hearing, proponents of these businesses seemed to use scripted talking points. “It’s socializing, it’s not gambling. It’s a group of elderly, a group of veterans,” said one internet cafe enthusiast.
After the public portion of the meeting was closed, City Attorney Fred Landt spoke on the legality of these machines. “One of the citizens that came up said that these things were illegal from the beginning. There are machines that could be put in establishments that may not be illegal,” said Landt. It is unclear how Landt could make that determination, when at an earlier August commission meeting he stated that “our police department lacks the expertise to tell an illegal machine from a legal machine.”
Commissioner Bo Smith said that these businesses were not a good fit for Belleview. “I have heard from numerous citizens in town, not people out of the City of Belleview, complain about them. Everything from the appearance they give the city, to the complaints of money, drugs, so forth. It’s just not a good fit, hasn’t been a good fit for the City of Belleview,” said Commissioner Smith.
Commissioner Ray Dwyer also weighed in. “I’m assuming at the amount of money you’re willing to pay quarterly, that you have been financially rewarded handsomely,” said Dwyer in regards to the offer that was made. “Florida law has told us that they’re illegal. That’s not a decision that any of us up here made, that’s what the state of Florida came in with their agent and told our police department. They’re illegal and they should go.”