Two weeks after the county's bingo ordinance went into effect, only a third of the organizations that run games have applied for a license, county officials say.
"We know that there are a lot of people playing, and I think there are a lot of people playing illegally," said John Wood, a chief investigator with the county's consumer protection department.
The ordinance requires all organizations that run bingo games to obtain a license, pass background checks and hand over financial records to the county. County officials estimate that about 200 organizations operate games or commercial parlors. All but about a dozen are charities.
As of Wednesday, about 70 organizations had applied for a bingo license, which has been required since Oct. 25.
The county will soon begin fining groups that have not applied for a license, Wood said. Those that have applied will be allowed to operate while the county checks their backgrounds, he said.
"I don't know whether they're not taking this seriously," Wood said. "I don't know whether they think we're not going to enforce it; if they think that, they're wrong."
Applications have been available since the beginning of October. County commissioners adopted the ordinance in July, but they didn't decide how much to charge for the license until Sept. 23. Commissioners set the annual license fee at $194.
Violating the bingo ordinance brings a $30 fine and can lead to a 60-day suspension, Wood said. A second violation can bring a one-year suspension.
"You take two hits and you're suspended a year, and you might as well be out of business," he said. "They're putting themselves really at a very high risk by not getting a license."
Over the past couple of days, county officials have made more than 400 phone calls to remind people that they need to apply for a license, County Administrator Fred Marquis said.
In at least one case, a bingo operator has decided not to apply for a license because he wants to challenge the ordinance in court, Marquis said.
Besides the licensing requirement, the ordinance limits jackpots to three $250 jackpots a day and prohibits events such as $1,000 raffles.
Bingo halls must also post their earnings, so that players can see how much money is going to charity.
Applications for a bingo license can be picked up at the county's Consumer Protection offices in the Criminal Court Complex, 14500 49th St. N, near Largo.