Pinellas County is considering placing a complete ban on Internet sweepstakes cafes, a move that officials estimate could shut down as many as 25 businesses.
But before it does, county commissioners want to know whether the cities will go along with it.
At a meeting Tuesday, the board voted in favor of sending letters to Pinellas' 24 cities to ask whether they would opt out if the county passed a prohibition.
Last week, Clearwater's City Council placed a six-month moratorium on the sweepstakes cafes, prohibiting any new ones from opening. It also barred existing ones from expanding. Clearwater already has 12 cafes — more than any other city in Pinellas County — and two more have applied to open.
"I really don't see our city having any reservations or apprehension about banning them," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne.
A countywide ban would take regulation of the cafes further than it has gone in most Pinellas cities, some of which have allowed the cafes to operate unhampered. A ban could affect 20 to 25 businesses, said Tim Burns, the county's director of Justice and Consumer Services.
Most of these are located in cities, he said. The county's unincorporated area is relatively free of them, due to aggressive campaigns against them by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his predecessor, Jim Coats, who have ordered the cafes to close and have occasionally seized their equipment.
Although County Attorney Jim Bennett had suggested the board pass a moratorium — preventing new cafes from popping up while the state Legislature debates their future — Gualtieri advised against that.
"I think it sends an inconsistent message," he told the board. "You wouldn't issue a moratorium on a business that's selling cocaine, because cocaine is illegal."
The cafes are also illegal, Gualtieri said, and should not be treated any differently.
Often packed with senior citizens who stay for hours to play computerized games that imitate slot machines, the cafes operate in a legal gray area. Many sell patrons cards giving them Internet access, and owners argue they are legitimate businesses. But opponents see them as mini-casinos and a scourge in cities with many elderly retirees.
Last week, Tampa's City Council voted to place a moratorium on the cafes, barring any new businesses with sweepstakes computers from opening in the city. Tampa has 13 Internet cafes already in operation, and those can remain, though the council placed new rules on them, including a prohibition on buying more sweepstakes machines or posting signs in their windows advertising gambling.
In 2011, the Hillsborough County Commission banned the use of the sweepstakes machines that are a key part of the business. Gualtieri urged the Pinellas commission to follow a similar route.
Currently, there are several bills circulating in the Legislature that would limit the cafes. One in the House, which has no Senate companion, would ban them outright. Another would hand counties and cities the power to regulate and prohibit the cafes. A third would place a two-year moratorium on new cafes. None has been heard in committee.
According to a report in the Oklahoman newspaper, one of Florida's largest Internet cafe operators is under federal investigation and suspected of running an illegal gambling operation. Chase Burns, an Oklahoma man who is owner of Florida Gaming Promotions and International Internet Technologies, is being investigated for supplying Internet cafes in Florida with computerized gambling equipment.
Authorities allege the cafes are posing as fundraising outlets for veterans' charities and operating under the name of a nonprofit organization, Allied Veterans of the World Inc. & Affiliates.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.