Macon-Bibb cracks down on illegal amusement games in stores

Nearly 43 percent of Macon-Bibb’s COAM locations had more machines than legally allowed


Georgia Lottery Corporation file image

Macon-Bibb County code enforcement officers inspected all 163 locations that have coin operated amusement machines and found 143 illegal machines.

Dozens of Macon-Bibb County business owners will face a judge for operating too many coin operated amusement machines, or COAMs.

Last week, code enforcement officers fanned out across Macon-Bibb County looking for violators.

“In just a couple of days we found so many illegal machines that were in our community and we’re dealing with it. It’s surprising,” Macon-Bibb County Code Enforcement director J.T. Ricketson said.

While Georgia law allows for nine Class B gaming machines per location, Macon-Bibb’s ordinance limits the number to six.

In just two days, code enforcement officers visited all 163 Macon locations licensed through the Georgia Lottery Corporation. Citations were written at 70 locations for 143 extra machines.

That means nearly 43 percent of the county’s licensed locations were in violation of the law.

The discovery came after Mayor Lester Miller dispatched code enforcement to make sure local convenience stores were complying with new stricter surveillance camera regulations pertaining to alcohol licensing.

When Ricketson noticed extra machines, they launched a countywide inspection and visited every store in a couple of days.

Word traveled fast through the business community, Miller told the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

“We noticed that once we got to some of the stores and left there and went to other stores, all of a sudden, store owners put bags on them. They were moving them, unplugging them, so I think it was evident that they knew they had more than allowed but law, but that’s up for the court to determine,” Miller said.

During Tuesday’s Macon-Bibb County Commission meeting, Senior Assistant County Attorney Michael McNeill read a public comment calling for removal of coin operated amusement machines from local stores. (Facebook screenshot)

During Tuesday night’s commission meeting, Wendy Evans submitted a public comment concerning the coin operated amusement machines.

“Please remove gambling machines from all Macon-Bibb businesses. They ruin families as much as drugs do,” her emailed comment stated.

Georgia law allows for the machines, which since 2013 are regulated through the Georgia Lottery Corporation and enforced by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Virgil Watkins has led a crusade and been critical of the machines’ presence in poorer neighborhoods. He established a committee last year to look into the issue.

“Part of the reason, our poorest people are the ones looking for the hope of quick money,” Watkins said at a recent Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission work session on convenience stores. “They get as close to our most vulnerable citizens as they can.”

He described all-night stores that smell of cigarette smoke as folks play the machines.

“People are having a good ol’ time like you’re on the Vegas strip. It’s a bad look for our community,” Watkins said

P&Z commissioners have been frustrated by the number of new store applications they see and placed a 90-day moratorium on new applications that could be extended late next month.

“In order to create more income, have to create more locations,” Watkins said as the reason for the plethora of applications for stores.

To also combat food deserts, Watkins led the Macon-Bibb County commission to outlaw alcohol licenses in so-called “vice marts” that have gaming machines, but no fuel sales or fresh meat and vegetables for sale.

Macon-Bibb County does not receive any of the proceeds of the gambling machines, but the Georgia Lottery Commission takes up to 10 percent of the receipts with the rest split evenly between the location operator and the master license holder who owns the machines.

Georgia law also states a store cannot make the majority of its profits from COAMS.

Cash payouts are illegal, but Watkins estimates nearly two dozen stores are breaking the law.

In 2018, District Attorney David Cooke announced raids on several businesses that led to 41 people and 61 business entities being named in an alleged statewide conspiracy.

P&Z attorney Pope Langstaff now is studying Georgia law to determine if Macon-Bibb County can regulate distances between COAM locations and make other code changes that could limit locations.

The operators cited last week could face a $1,000 fine for each extra machine found in the inspection. Court dates are being set in Muncipal Court.

-Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can e reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.