Communities look to regulate internet cafes
By Sascha Cordner
Tallahassee, FL – When it comes to gambling, Florida ranks fourth in the nation, and some say if Internet Cafes were added into that equation, the state would be third. As Sascha Cordner reports, several counties throughout the state of Florida are trying to figure out what to do about internet cafes in the area: ban them or regulate them.
What are Internet Cafes? It depends on who you ask. Many people on different sides of the issue have different opinions on what an Internet Cafe is. Those in favor say they're nothing more than computers in a cafe where people can go surf the internet. Opponents say they're places for gambling and nothing else.
Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling Help-line director Brian Kongsvik says there is quite a significant number of Internet Cafes in the state.
"In Duval County alone, there's almost 60, in Leon County, near our Capitol, there's 25 or 26, In Volusia County, there's 20, so there's a significant amount of these places across the state. So, we're sticking to about 600, that's what we know of, but the Florida legislature says there's upwards of 1000 right now."
Kongsvik says in the last 20 months, the helpline has received between 170 and 180 phone calls from people who often frequent these cafes quite often. He says several areas throughout the state have already begun making different decision regarding internet cafes.
"Some counties, towns, and cities are putting in ordinances to either ban them altogether or put a moratorium on them, so that new ones can't open up around that area. We're seeing a lot more of that in Seminole County, Volusia County, Baker County, We're seeing that quite a bit around the state, Pinellas County right now, the Sheriff in Pinellas County."
Kongsvik says Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has been extremely vocal lately about wanting to stop internet sweepstakes cafes in his area. He says they are gambling establishments that do not need to be there.
Leon County Officials are also looking into internet cafes in their area. Leon County Commission Chairman John Dailey says a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday will allow them to look at different alternatives.
"Obviously, the commission has several options. One option is to do nothing, the other extreme is to ban [internet cafes] outright or to find some common ground in between in some type of regulatory fashion."
At the hearing, commissioners are expected to consider two ordinances, one proposed by several internet cafes and the other, an ordinance originally drafted by County Attorney Herb Thiele, tacked on with a few compromises. His would allow the cafes to stay open, but with stricter regulation.
A Jacksonville law firm, called Mathis and Murphy, is representing several Internet Caf owners in the state. Adam Regar, an attorney with the firm, explains how the hearing will go:
"The attorneys are going to tell the board this is what we could come up with a compromise on, and I believe the way it will go is if the board is happy with the compromise they will adopt it, as is, and if they're unhappy, and they want to take a piece from the industries side and if they're perhaps, unhappy with the county side, then they can do that."
Regar says the goal of each ordinance is the same: to address the secondary effects of the businesses, including where they are, and help law enforcement figure out what is a lawful operation and what isn't.
But, even after counties, like Leon, do make a decision whether or not to ban or regulate internet cafes, it may not matter. A bill has already been re-filed by Republican Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood for the 2012 legislative session, which would all ban internet cafes in Florida.
Florida Internet Cafes Coalition Spokeswoman Sarah Bascom insists internet cafes are legal under present Florida law. She says the coalition will fight any proposed ban that will put internet cafes out of business. She also hopes to work out a compromise with Representative Plakon to help law enforcement distinguish between good cafes and bad ones.