By Royal Calkins
Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado says he’s interested in getting another card room in the city partly because the tax income would cover the cost of adding a police officer.
Some others in and out of city government say, however, that they’re afraid of the potential troubles card rooms can carry — things such as money laundering, cheating, loan sharking, drugs, prostitution and prolonged litigation — which could create far more work than one additional employee could handle.
Licensing and monitoring card rooms also creates hidden expenses. There is the cost of city staff time and legal fees attached to licensing each employee. There is the cost of bookkeeping and audits to show how much the card room should be paying the city in gaming taxes.
Based on past performance of the out-of-business Mortimer’s Club and the active Marina Club, it’s reasonable to predict that a new club could produce over $100,000 annually in gaming taxes in its early years and potentially more later. The one Marina club still in existence, the Marina Club Casino, has been paying over $200,000 in recent years, a number that went up dramatically after Mortimer’s went out of business in 2015.
The City Council is scheduled Wednesday night to consider ending a long card room moratorium, which could enable a growing chain of card rooms to move into the city, possibly starting with vacant parcel that the current applicant has been eyeing near the high school. Though many Marina residents have chimed in against the idea, a professional lobbying operation is in high gear to make it happen, a process that likely would take at least a year.
The debate is not just philosophical. It’s also about money and political power. Driving the application for a license is one of California’s best-financed cardroom operators, politically connected John Hee-Jong Park and his Parkwest Casinos, which recently acquired the huge Bicycle Club in Southern California. Because Park has made important friends in Sacramento through hefty campaign contributions, he might be a good bet to get another license here. It could prove tricky, though, because the one cardroom license potentially available in Marina expired years ago and may not actually exist.
The California Gaming Control Commission says that’s not much of a hurdle. Over the objections of the Marina Club, the commission last year declared the license of the defunct Mortimer’s valid and approved its sale to a group headed by Park. The validity of gaming licenses expired or otherwise in peril has often led to expensive litigation. The Marina Club operator, Frank Calamia, has fought Park’s proposal but at a public forum last week, he seemed to be softening his position.
The license once belonged to investors behind Mortimer’s, the 1950s throwback card club that was on the Del Monte Avenue commercial strip. Today, across a side road, still sits the Marina Club Casino, which holds a valid license for 10 card tables.
Card rooms like what Mortimer’s was and Marina Club is are reminders of the card rooms of yesteryear. Almost quaint. Farmers, business people, merchants, college kids and the occasional hustler looking for easy pickings, all sitting around oblong tables with writing on the felt playing surface. Poker bets at the Marina Club generally start at $2 or $4 but they grow fast. A final bet in a Texas Hold ‘Em game can easily reach three or four figures. And some games have no betting limit, so there’s some of that “I’m all in” drama.
Licenses also allow forms of blackjack, baccarat (sometimes) and Pai Gow, but often with a twist. California law says gamblers can’t bet against the house, the card room, so the players must take turns serving as “the bank,” which gives them an advantage long term. Some card rooms offer blackjack, or 21, but with a twist to make the game California- legal. In one variety, the winner is the hand closest to 21 but players can’t “bust” like in regular blackjack. A 17 beats a 24 for example.
At one point, around a decade ago, two of Park’s card rooms provided banked games in which some dealers were illegally serving as the bank, according to state records. Unfortunately, those same state records don’t say what happened as a result, but clearly Park wasn’t banned from the business.
With the dealers not gambling against the players, the card room makes its money by charging each player a set fee for each hand. Five dollars is somewhat standard.
Card rooms like the one Park envisions for Marina tend to be fancier and slicker than the Marina Club. Delgado, the city’s longtime mayor, has said he envisions a modern-looking place along one of the city’s entrances. The lot on Del Monte near the high school and Highway 101 would qualify. An upscale welcome to a city lacking in pizazz. It remains unclear whether the property is too close to the school to meet state and local regulations. Apparently it depends on the measurement methodology.
Delgado didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Mortimer’s and the Marine club were in place before Marina was incorporated as a city in 1975. They were grandfathered in as legal, non-conforming uses. Cities in California are entitled to legalize card rooms upon a public vote of approval. Not including card rooms at tribal casinos, there are about 80 cardroom licenses in the state but fewer than 60 are in operation. That’s about one per county. The only other one in Monterey County is Bankers Casino in downtown Salinas.
Concerned about the state becoming overwhelmed by gambling establishments, including tribal casinos, the state Legislature imposed a moratorium on new card room licenses in 1998. After being renewed every six years, the state moratorium expired Jan. 1 and the Marina City Council needs to decide whether the city wants to reverse the city’s own moratorium, which was enacted two years before the state ‘s moratorium. (Park started quietly pitching his plan to the city two years ago and it has been discussed by the council several times without any binding decisions.)
The tax money might be tempting, but some city officials have said it will be a tough decision.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said recently that “No one in their right mind” would seek a card room license now because of the potential of additional moratoriums.
One reason most California cities don’t allow card rooms is that they are opposed by local law enforcement because of the additional work and potential for them to become crime magnets. With Marina’s latest police chief, Tina Nieto, having just become Monterey County sheriff, the city manager is about to start interviewing for her replacement, to be picked by the manager. As part of that process, Delgado has proposed the unusual move of having two city council members help screen candidates or having two council members serve on a screening committee. In most California cities, police chiefs are hired directly by the city manager with no direct input from city councils. Delgado’s proposal for a new process is also up for discussion at Wednesday’s meeting.
CORRECTION: This article originally said that poker dealers at two of Park’s card rooms were serving as bankes for table games about a dozen years ago. Dealers of some games were, according to the state, but poker games aren’t banked. The gamblers were appropriately betting against each other.
Photo | Adobe Stock
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