STARR COUNTY, Texas (CNS) — Catholic leaders in the Texas Rio Grande Valley are alarmed by the detrimental effect they say local gaming parlors are having especially on families.

“I am sorry they are here in our county,” said Deacon R.C. Salinas of Sacred Heart Parish in Escobares. “I don’t think they are doing anybody any good.”

“They” are the countless eight-liner machine parlors that have sprouted up all over Starr County since county commissioners approved a resolution in September 2014 to permit gaming machines in unincorporated areas with an annual licensing fee of $500 per machine.

Starr County is one of four counties that make up the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

Under Texas law, gaming machines that award non-cash prizes with a value of $5 or no more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game, are legal; however, gaming parlors are operating outside the parameters of the law and openly offering cash payouts.

The gaming parlors can be easily spotted from U.S. Highway 83 as soon as one crosses the Starr County line. The nondescript buildings, mostly without windows, are usually surrounded by wood fences. Neon “open” signs are one of the few clues that these establishments are in operation. The parking lots are packed in the middle of the workday.

The gaming machines, or “las maquinitas” as they are commonly called, draw patrons from across the Rio Grande Valley but have had an especially detrimental effect on local residents, Deacon Salinas said.

“We have people gambling away their retirement money, their rent money, the money they need to pay their bills or put food on the table,” he told The Valley Catholic, the Brownsville diocesan newspaper. “They are tempted by the prospect of winning fast money.”

Deacon Salinas said there has been an increase in people requesting assistance from the parish to pay their rent and utility bills. In speaking with some of these families, the deacon said some have admitted that, “they blew their money at ‘las maquinitas.'”

“The people who frequent these gaming parlors are usually the most vulnerable — people on fixed incomes, the poor, the elderly,” said Deacon Salinas, who also believes the gaming parlors attract crime.

Problem gamblers have also sought counseling and spiritual direction from local clergy.

“Without breaking any confidences, I can tell you, yes, there is a problem,” said Father Juan Manuel Salazar, parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception Church in Rio Grande City. “Going to ‘las maquinitas’ has become an addiction for many in our community and as is true with any addiction, it takes away from the needs of the family.

“More likely than not, they are going to lose, but they keep going with that hope, ‘I’m going to hit it big with this next one, I’m going to hit it big with this next one'” and so on.

Jorge Hinojosa is the director of religious education for St. Anne Parish in Penitas, which includes Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a mission in Sullivan City.

Sullivan City is located in Hidalgo County just before the Starr County line.

Hinojosa said he and other church members in Sullivan City believe the gaming parlors have caused a host of problems in their community, drawing unsavory characters from outside of the area, more crime and more traffic to the neighborhood.

Several church members had a lengthy discussion about it recently after daily Mass.

The gaming parlors, Hinojosa said, are hurting the spiritual as well as the financial health of the community.

“‘Los juegos’ (games) are actually taking people away from church ministries,” Hinojosa said. “Several of the elderly ladies from our church have stopped coming to their rosary groups and instead are going to ‘las maquinitas’ to socialize — and we’re hearing that many of them are gambling away their Social Security checks.

“To say we are concerned is an understatement.”

Starr County officials expect to make about $2 million annually from licensing the gaming machines, which is earmarked to cover a budget shortfall.

“The excuse is that county gets taxes off of them,” Father Salazar said. “The reality of what is happening is that the county is robbing Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. They don’t account for the devastation that gambling is causing our families. The constituents are the ones who are suffering.”