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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pinball price tag dropping: City Council votes to repeal annual ‘amusement devices’ fee

Javi Sparks plays one of eight pinball machines at Berserk Bar on Stevens Street, Wednesday, May 19, 2021.The city of Spokane eliminated the decades-old licensing fees charged to restaurants, bars and arcades that have "amusement devices" like pinball machines and arcade games.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

For a pinball player, the price of a round is measured in quarters.

For the machine’s owner, it was $25 a year just for a city license – until now.

The Spokane City Council voted unanimously on Monday to eliminate the annual license fees charged to businesses that own “amusement devices” such as arcade games, pinball and jukeboxes.

The change was rooted in sympathy garnered by local businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The owners of these devices, operators, have not been able to use them, so (we’re) trying to give a little bit of regulatory flexibility and ease a little bit of burden for these business owners,” explained Brian McClatchey, the City Council’s director of policy and government relations.

Bob Carroll is the owner of System Amusements, a Spokane-based business that supplies local businesses with games. He asked the council to temporarily waive the fees this spring, citing the challenges faced by businesses brought on by restrictions implemented during the pandemic.

The City Council leveled up his proposal, making the repeal permanent and refunding what businesses had paid in 2020 and 2021.

The license fees are a relic from the first half of the 20th century, a time when pool tables were the source of disputes that had to be resolved by police. The fees helped offset the cost of the city’s response.

In his March letter to the City Council, Carroll said that “the need for police involvement has decreased to almost zero.”

Even if a machine was broken into, Carroll wrote, “there would be no police involvement other than calling Crime Check to file a police report.”

With the arcade industry waning, the license fees are no longer a substantive source of revenue for a city with a nearly $1 billion budget.

Under city law, an “amusement device” is defined as any “mechanical or electronic device, including specifically an electronic video game, designed to be played or operated by the insertion of a coin, slug or token, or otherwise upon payment of a fee, for the purpose of amusement, entertainment or music.”

Each business that operates an amusement device was required to pay a $40 operator’s license, plus the $25 license fee per machine.

For the city, that added up to $9,888 in revenue in 2019.

City officials had also signaled support for the fee waiver, arguing the revenue isn’t worth the effort of collection.

The repeal was sponsored by Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who said she heard from small business owners about the fees.

“We were happy to bring it forward and give them a break. It is deserved,” Stratton said.