Columbia revisits video gambling

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A year after the City of Columbia issued a moratorium on new A-1 and A-2 liquor licenses needed to operate video gambling machines, the city council is making plans to adopt official language regarding the matter.

In July 2021, the council voted to not issue any new licenses for gambling machines until the city updated its liquor code to establish specific guidance about which types of businesses can have the machines and how many total licenses could be issued.

While there was no action on the issue Monday night, a majority of council discussion was dedicated to the topic.

Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm explained the moratorium had been issued as a response to a number of inquiries last year and in order to “remove ambiguity” from city code before moving forward. 

One element which would not change is the restriction of any establishment that “sells fuel” – such as a gas station – from operating the machines.

There are currently 11 licenses for video gambling issued to 11 businesses in Columbia. The proposed language would cap the total number of licenses issued by the city at 15.

When asked how the city arrived at that number,  Columbia Mayor Bob Hill explained the city “felt that 15 was a reasonable approach” by allowing four additional licenses.

Prior to the moratorium, Columbia did not have an established limit on the number of licenses it would issue. 

“I don’t want to go down the same rabbit hole,” Hill said, referring to inconsistent prior city practices in issuing such licenses.

John Koerber, who operates the video gaming lounge Pair of Dice at 105 W. Kunz Street, addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. He spoke in favor of a license limit.

“There’s only a pie of people who play and what they can spend. I was fortunate to get (a license),” Koerber said, adding he felt allowing more licenses would be “taking a piece of the pie away from the established places. I don’t believe it brings in other people from Missouri or other places. It just thins it out.”

Koerber also had questions about an increase in cost for both liquor licenses and operation stickers for existing machines.

He said he was “shocked” when the sticker cost rose from $75 to $250. He also said the 150 percent increase for an A-1 or A-2 liquor license from $600 to $1,500 was “pretty much unheard of.”

Ward II Alderman Mark Roessler said the increase in fees for businesses with gambling machines “should not shut anyone down” and “it doesn’t sound out of line” over a 10-year period since 2012 when video gambling became legal in Illinois.

The increase in fees for machine stickers was mandated by the State of Illinois.

Roessler also explained the city’s philosophy with video gambling since it came to the city has been a “conservative approach.” 

“We’re not here to restrict business or protect a business,” Roessler continued. “We wanted to see how it impacted the community.” 

With 10 years of data, the city is ready to formally adopt policy amendments for video gambling.

Brimm pointed out all revenue from the machines funds city parks in Columbia. 

He also noted proposed changes would not take anything away from existing establishments offering video gambling unless they change ownership.

One license holder would be disallowed under the new liquor code language, but would still be allowed to continue operating as in the past until the liquor license is not renewed or revoked for cause.

The city council is expected to vote on the liquor code changes at its next meeting.

Also at the meeting, Columbia City Engineer Chris Smith sought approval to draft proposals for recently released grant funding.

Smith said the grants were mostly for creation of sidewalks, walkways and bike trails. Smith said he believed he could apply for a grant to establish a path near Rueck Road and also on Quarry Road to Sand Bank Road, although the latter would need to clear certain hurdles if accepted.

Smith also gave an update on current work on the roundabout project on Quarry Road. While rain last week delayed work, paving began Monday and should be completed before the start of classes at Immaculate Conception School later this month.

Columbia Director of Information Technology James Mitchell also gave the council an update on ongoing projects. 

The city’s partnership with HTC to install fiber lines throughout city-owned properties is about 90 percent complete. 

The installation was required for the city to install about 60 cameras at traffic intersections, parks, city buildings and other properties. 

Mitchell said the cameras should all be installed and active by the end of the month.

Hill said the cameras are already proving valuable and “they’re a lot better” than previous technology used to aid criminal investigations and traffic accidents.

Mitchell also noted the transition from copper to fiber at the Columbia Police Department station on North Main Street has allowed for quicker connection for the county-wide system used to map for fire and police vehicles as well as enabling better location services during emergency service calls.

Late last week, the city received good news from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency when its director, John Kim, sent a letter advising a situation involving one of Columbia’s leaf collection sites was closed.

The city had sent the IEPA a letter addressing several issues which had arisen regarding leachate from the collected leaves entering an “intermittent creek” near the collection site on Bremser Road.

“Given the city’s attention to this matter and commitments set forth in its July 13 letter, this matter is now considered resolved,” Kim wrote in a letter to the city dated July 28.

“On behalf of city staff, thank you all for your support, trust, and confidence throughout this process, and every day. We also thank State Senator Terri Bryant for her assistance in resolving this matter,” Brimm wrote in an email to city employees and elected officials.

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