Internet Cafes Columbia County: The State Attorney Will Have the Final Word, For Now
Posted August 19, 2017 08:15 am
By Stew Lilker
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Thursday night, August 17, the local mainstream media’s up-playing of Internet cafes in Lake City/Columbia County came to fruition with the issue front and center at the County 5. The Chamber of Commerce, the State Attorney and the Sheriff, Internet cafe owners and patrons were represented and spoke their piece. Absent from the microphone were any opponents from the general public, who may have had better things to worry about than Internet cafes in rural poor North Central Florida. The final word on law enforcement went to the big gun in the room, 3d Circuit State Attorney, Jeff Siegmeister.
Dennille Decker, Exec. Dir. of the Chamber Of Commerce
She presented the Chamber’s position
Dennille Decker, no Chamber members came forward to back her up.
Ms. Decker began by telling the County 5 that, “Internet cafes garnered attention of the business community and the public.”
She said, “We are not trying to harm anybody in any way. What we are trying to do is bring attention and bring regulations to an industry that is in abundance in Lake City and Columbia County.”
According to Ms. Decker’s research, the unincorporated area of Columbia County has 20 casinos [Internet cafes] with one pending and Lake City has 10.
She said, “From July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017, the LCPD responded to 380 calls for service in the city limits. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) responded to 394 calls to the 20 casinos in the unincorporated area.”
Ms. Decker asked, “What is it about us that is attracting this type of business to come here?”
Ms. Decker informed The 5 that she learned through her research: “these types of businesses are expressly prohibited in the state of Florida.”
She told the County 5, “We understand that illegal activity does not go on at every one, but we have to put some sort of regulations into effect to stop this from continuing to grow.”
The Old Porterhouse
The Porterhouse restaurant was at one time a popular restaurant in Lake City. After it ceased operation as a restaurant, it became an Internet Café.
Ms. Decker told The 5, “The old Porterhouse, in the last year they have had 220 combined calls for service.”
As she concluded her presentation, Ms. Decker explained that earlier in the day an internet casino owner stopped by her office and asked, “What can I do to stay open?”
Ms. Decker said she told him, “It’s not my expressed goal to shut you down. What we are trying to do is figure out why everybody is coming to Columbia County.”
Ms. Decker shared the owner’s response, “Columbia County is known for having little to no regulations when it comes to having these types of casinos.”
Before she left the microphone, Ms. Decker told the County 5, “That’s not the reputation that I want for Columbia County, and I don’t think that that is the kind of reputation that you guys would want to have for our community.”
State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister addresses the County 5.
Mr. Siegmeister told the County 5, “Based on recent activity in this county I came today to discuss this issue, since I knew that it was going to be on the agenda.”
“My circuit covers seven counties. In the last week we’ve had two Internet cafés that have opened in Live Oak [Suwannee County]. Because they are not licensed there is money to be made; they’re basically ahead of any state regulation.”
Mr. Siegmeister continued, “This is a problem that we can no longer afford to address. It’s a consensual activity. The people that go there want to go there. The business owners want to make money. There’s employees — but there is a reason that North Florida has as many of these Internet cafés as the rest of the state combined. If you’re in Pensacola — you can drive to Biloxi. If you’re in Tampa — you’ll go to the Hard Rock Café.”
The Siegmeister Strategy
“At this point I’m in the process of running down every current operation… If there is anything of significant value that is risked or gained in a game of chance, and it is not in a licensed facility, it is considered gambling in Florida. I make no moral decision about this, but I can’t ignore the fact that these places are getting robbed because there is a lot of cash there… Citizens of this County and the other six small counties in my circuit should be outraged by the waste of resources to go deal with these facilities,” he said.
He announced, “Everybody that owns one will be getting a letter advising them what Florida law says. I’ll remind the owners and the people that are managing them that they are committing a third-degree felony in Florida if the game is actually gambling.”
Mr. Siegmeister continued, “My staff would rather deal with serious offenses. Dealing as the moral police is not my choice, but we cannot ignore the statistics.”
An Even Hand: “No moral judgment”
Mr. Siegmeister explained that it wasn’t only the Internet cafés that would be warned about gambling using the machines. He said convenience stores with the machines “would get the same warning.”
He continued, “I make no moral judgment. They are illegal. They are dangerous now because they are unsecure and cost a lot of money to deal with from a law enforcement standpoint.”
“This is a problem that’s all over North Florida… I’m sending letters because I don’t want to prosecute anybody. I have other cases. But this is a violation of the law — this is your warning.”
He said, “I will be sending these letters certified mail, and those that come back, I will hand deliver. No one will say they didn’t get my legal advice — — for what that’s worth.”
Commissioner Nash: “What are you asking?”
Commissioner Sylvester “Bucky” Nash: “We are very deep into this. From a business standpoint — looking at 30,000 – 40,000 sq. ft. is being leased in Columbia County. What are you asking of the board?”
Mr. Siegmeister replied, “I’m not asking anything.”
Mr. Nash followed up, “If the determination is not legal, they shouldn’t be opening. But if they’re legal and they’re runnin’ em’ and you have the security that you are talking about, where is it our place to shut em’ down?”
Mr. Siegmeister answered, “I’m not asking the board that. I didn’t come here to ask the board to act. I saw that this was going to be addressed. Your ordinance would be wonderful. My position is if they’re illegal, an ordinance isn’t going to legalize it.”
County Attorney Joel Foreman advised The 5 to “take a wait and see” approach.
The Attendees Addressed The 5
Sarah Babcock said she worked at a cyber cafe which has armed security and a security system.
Shaun Paughn introduced himself as a cafe owner. He told The 5, “We run games of skill. You are going to put a lot of people out of work.”
Linda Carter introduced herself as a former undersheriff in Colorado. Ms. Carter analyzed the calls. She mentioned most of the calls were routine calls that had nothing to do with the Internet cafés. Ms. Carter asked the board to consider, “That there will be 200 people out of work; 31 storefronts that will be empty… ”
Nicholas Wellborne told The 5, “I live in Fernandina beach. I am a game room owner here in the city.” He went on to say that he thought the problems were coming from just one or two “bad apples.”
Laurie Hewitt: “I wanted to let you know that I’ve been going to these things since way back… and its not a haven for trouble. There is a bunch of us little old ladies in there talkin’ about our grandkids. Lake City doesn’t have a lot of entertainment… If you take them away you’re taking away our entertainment.”
Linda Russell told The 5, “I live in Lake City. I am an Internet café owner. I have been one since 2013. Not one time have I had a robbery at my location. Not one time have I had an officer to have to come to my location… We bring money into the city… You need to think about the employees that we do have that’s gonna’ lose their job.”
Mark Davis told The 5, “I live in Lake City. I go to the Internet cafés. I enjoy them… It’s a friendly environment. I ask you all to please keep them here.”
Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter
Sheriff Mark Hunter
Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter was invited to the microphone by Chairman Williams to give his take on the situation.
The Sheriff said that by statute the Internet cafés are not legal… “until we get the statute changed, it is illegal to gamble, but there’s loopholes in there, so we’re going to have to do something locally.”
County Attorney Foreman maintained the same thoughts as he did earlier in the meeting, “Let’s take a look at it and come back and talk about it.”
The 5 wraps it up
The Columbia County 5 from left to right: Commissioners Ronald Williams; Rusty DePratter; Bucky Nash; Everett Phillips; Tim Murphy
Commissioner Nash urged caution, “I want to be cautious… If it’s legal and we can make it safe… I’m all for it.”
Commissioner Murphy: “It seems to me like every body sittin’ here in the audience — they’re lookin’ for a resolution on even ground.”
Commissioner DePratter: “I want to take a wait and see approach, also. I don’t want to shut any business down. You know guys, you got a division of gambling. If your gambling they’re gonna get ya.”
Commissioner Phillips: “I would like to say that I enjoy gambling myself… I just got back from Mississippi last Sunday. I had a good time. We are not trying to close the door. We want to try and help you if we can, and let’s just wait 10 days to see what happens. Maybe everything will come out for everybody.”
County Chairman Ronald Williams had the final word: “After all the comments, I hear my fellow commissioners say, ‘At this time, that this board don’t do anything.’ What that is saying is, as long as you’re in the County this board have not said, ‘You’re shuttin’ down.'”
The board agreed to have the County Attorney prepare a moratorium on the establishment of any additional Internet cafés for six months.