Marion County commissioners heard Tuesday from both sides of an ordinance to effectively ban internet cafes before delaying a decision until their next meeting on Feb. 2.
The ordinance, which was proposed by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, targets businesses that provide simulative gambling. If passed, it would impose fines and possible jail time on violators for each game that’s being operated. The measure would not affect family amusement centers or parimutuel betting establishments.
Attorney Tim McCourt, representing Sheriff Billy Woods and the sheriff’s office, told commissioners that the internet cafes – close to 42 spread across the unincorporated areas of the county – are costing taxpayers plenty of money.
“Over the last two or three years we’ve seen a proliferation of internet cafes in Marion County, and with it we’ve seen a proliferation of the kind of crime that inevitably seems to accompany internet cafes,” he said.
McCourt said investigations involving internet cafes are quite pricey to taxpayers, often involving six or more law enforcement officers going to the businesses on multiple occasions, playing the various games there, applying for a search warrant and then executing that warrant. He added that serving such a warrant usually involves the SWAT team as well, which ties up a great deal of man hours.
“When you put it all together, just through the service of the search warrant, you’re probably talking anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 per internet café,” McCourt said, adding the cost of prosecution is even more.
McCourt also told commissioners that violent crimes typically take place at internet cafes, which poses a danger to customers and employees. He said crimes often go unreported and when they are reported, employees sometimes refuse to cooperate with law enforcement officers and owners of the businesses are difficult to locate.
McCourt said in the past three years the Unified Drug Enforcement Strike Team – a federally funded initiative comprised of local and federal agents from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the Ocala Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration – has investigated close to 20 internet cafes for gambling violations. He said that from January 2019 through last week, there were 12 robberies, most of them involving weapons and large amounts of cash being taken. He also showed commissioners a video of a recent internet café robbery where $10,000 was reportedly taken as the gunman screamed obscenities and demanded cell phones and cash from everyone in the facility.
“It’s only a matter of time before somebody is killed at an internet café,” McCourt said.
Several people, including attorneys representing internet café owners, spoke against the ordinance, claiming that it targets a legal activity. They said such a measure would force layoffs and suggested regulations would be a much better plan than shutting down the businesses. And some suggested that internet cafes provide relief for residents who are seeking entertainment.
“This ordinance is to take an activity that is currently legal, currently allowed throughout the state in various places, and to make that activity illegal, to close down these businesses, to put their employees out of work, but most importantly to deprive the citizens of Marion County from participating in an activity that they choose to do,” said attorney Kelly Mathis, who represents a coalition of game owners and had a stack of petitions against the ordinance.
Attorney Jim Reich, also representing owners of local internet cafes, said any business with cash will create the same types of law enforcement issues McCourt mentioned. He said there are measures that could be accomplished through regulations to reduce the possibility of crime.
“We would ask you to consider a moratorium on any additional internet cafes and allow time for study to see what can be done to save them,” Reich said.
After some discussion, commissioners agreed to tackle the issue again at their next meeting on Feb. 2, though it appeared as if they were leaning toward approving the measure. Commissioner Kathy Bryant said internet café owners are being given enough notice now to be prepared to shut down quickly if the ordinance passes next month. Chairman Jeff Gold added that he knows some people will lose their jobs if the ordinance passes, but there are many other employment opportunities throughout the county.