Tampa City Council again declines panhandling vote
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01/06/11 Kate Bradshaw
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A Tampa activist has been urging city council to put a panhandling ban on the March First ballot. But the Council’s not too keen on a ban that doesn’t address the question of why so many people resort to the practice in the first place.

Spencer Kass is not happy with City Hall.

"Why this council won't take action is truly beyond me."

Kass has gone to multiple meetings to urge city and county officials to put a citywide panhandling ban on the ballot. He circulated a petition to put the issue up to a vote, but wasn’t able to get the required eighteen thousand signatures by the December 26th deadline. Today he accused the council of denying democracy to Tampa residents.

"It's been reviewed by the city legal department, they believe it's constitutional. They believe it can be defended. So, when we deal with constitutional issues, as far as I'm concerned there is no issue. Now you can have them come down and bring you an ordinance directly and you can vote on it, and you can simply pass the ordinance and we can stop all this. Otherwise, let's just let the public decide. I don't understand what the problem is with democracy."

The proposed ban was not on the council agenda today, but discussion over a citywide panhandling ban identical to the one passed in St. Petersburg last year ate up a solid chunk of the morning. Council member Charlie Miranda said to ban panhandling without offering any immediate solutions to poverty and homelessness would essentially shut out an entire class of people.

"What makes a city, or a country or a nation or a world is compassion about other people. An understanding of the facts on how they feel in a time of need. This order doesn't cover anything but get rid of them. So if you have a family of five children and four are doing well, and one's not doing too good, as a parent are you going to close your eyes to the one that's not doing good and say, 'I'm only going to raise the other four?' I don't think so."

Kass said he thinks the city has had time to develop its own solutions, but has done nothing.

"The City of Tampa has an outright ban on things like mobile home parks, some of the most affordable ways of creating housing. And this council has had four years. Let's hear what the things they've done to create jobs. Reverend [Tom] Scott said four years ago he predicted that we were going to have a higher and higher unemployment rate. Can he name anything that they have done on their own to create more jobs in the city of Tampa? To make this a better environment?"

Council member Mary Mulhern said it’s inappropriate to consider a panhandling ban in the wake of an economic catastrophe, especially when one proposes no solution.

"I just read the other day that there are now 23,000 homeless people in the Tampa Bay area. We all know people who have all of their lives have had good jobs, good education, who can't find a job right now. Half the people we know, everyone I know, they're income is probably dropped in half if they're lucky enough to have a job in the last couple of years. Things are really bad so to be asked as city council to tell people that they can't ask for help on the street is a difficult thing."

During public comment, Jenny Bronson said she has had no roof over her head for two weeks. She told the Council she sometimes has to rely on panhandling to catch a bus across town to apply for jobs.

"I cannot find work because nobody will give me an interview. So I've only been on the streets now this is going into my second week and there's not a whole lot of money out there but it does help me when your pocket is broke, when you're trying to get to a job to fill out an application or get to an unemployment office versus walking all of the way there when you have no money or no means of getting there, no money to put gas in your car. So my only alternative was to go out and see what I could do to help myself because I've done everything that I can to help myself. Not that I'm a beggar but it was the only option that I have."

The only Council member who spoke in relative support of the ban was Joseph Caetano. He said he doesn’t support a vote on the issue, but rather an outright ban.

"I think we need to do it as a body because we got voted to do these jobs. We don't have to subcontract to the citizens."

Other council members as well as city attorney Chip Fletcher noted that even if the city were to approve a ban, there may be some legal issues.

"Because of the federal and state case law right now, the city's only option really is to have a ban or to have an open availability to for solicitation on the roadways. There is a state statute on this issue that exempts some certain groups from permitting. The federal courts have looked at that and said 'no, that's not acceptable. Either everybody has to get permits or no one can get permits.' Right now we're into the, because of that case law we're in a situation where you have no permit as an option."

He said one option would to issue a complete panhandling ban, but only for certain thoroughfares.

The council declined to vote on proposing a panhandling ban to Tampa voters in March. But it did elect to place a referendum on the ballot that would give a tax break to businesses that move to or set up shop in Tampa. The tax break could apply to up to one hundred percent of the assessed value of a new business, as well as tangible items like equipment and furniture. Council chair Tom Scott said the exemption, if adopted, could help boost Tampa’s competitive edge.

"If passed by the voters, this is another tool in our tool chest or tool box that we can use for economic development and job creation."

Hillsborough County voters passed a similar incentive in November, but it does not apply to Tampa. Critics say the exemption could result in a deep loss of revenue at a time when municipal coffers are already hurting.

Previous WMNF coverage of homelessness

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