Pasco County Commission debates ways to deal with panhandling

PA-1103-COUNTYCOMM1 – Members of the Friends of the Library pose with county commissioners and staff members at the Oct. 26 commission meeting.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The County Commission on Oct. 26 voted to move forward with a plan to deal with panhandling at intersections in Pasco County.

A new ordinance modeled on one in Lee County might stand up to legal scrutiny, said Patrick Moore, senior assistant county attorney.

Moore said that law enforcement officers in several counties have stopped enforcing anti-panhandling ordinances because of concerns over First Amendment rights.

An ordinance based on Lee County’s would eliminate panhandling as the basis of a violation.

A problem, said Commissioner Mike Moore, is that cases are being decided on a higher level than the local level.

“A federal court judge thinks he knows what’s better for us and better for our community, and ruins it for everybody,” he said. “They’re trying to set precedents for local governments.”

County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said counties have enacted a “safety” ordinance, and she said she thought they should do the same.

Patrick Moore said the Lee County ordinance says it’s illegal to remain in a median area whether it’s paved or not paved unless you’re actively crossing the crosswalk.

It has a second section that makes a physical exchange or interaction illegal between a pedestrian and a vehicle that’s not parked.

“It almost simplifies what exactly a violation is,” he said, “and removes any contemplation on the enforcement side of trying to determine what the intent or the message is between a pedestrian and a vehicle.”

What if a person is walking down a street in a neighborhood or HOA, Mike Moore asked, carrying a sign saying, “I need money”?

“That wouldn’t apply if they’re on the sidewalk,” Patrick Moore said. It’s a protected right, like protesting, he added.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said it’s a sore subject in the Hudson area. One man brings two children, he said he heard, and someone needs to make a call about it.

The people seeking donations need to realize that they cannot stand in a median that is not a sufficient pedestrian refuge. The second part is letting people know that they are in violation if they give.

“I can’t think of a more important thing for code enforcement officers to do, at least in the Hudson area, to go attack this issue,” Mariano said. “Let the people know as they’re giving, and do it right in front of the people that are holding up these signs, that you’re not allowed to go do it.”

With all the jobs available, he said people panhandling should be able to get a job and go to work.

The new ordinance “hits it perfectly and simply,” he added, and will improve the quality of life in the area.

Starkey said there are some challenges in that area, too, as people might just dispose of a piece of paper if they get a summons.

“We might have to get tough for a little bit,” she said. “It could be a revolving door, but not a nice revolving door.”

She said she’s worried about the safety issues for the people who are panhandling on Pasco County’s roads.

Starkey showed a brochure she said was made to give out to people seeking money from motorists offering help finding a job, housing, medical help and more. It could be localized for different areas of the county. The big thing is to get people into jobs.

“Anybody who wants to work, I want to help them get work,” she said.

A big problem could be getting the word out, and Moore said they could put it up on electronic billboards about what could happen to a driver who hands out money.

“You’ll be cited as a driver,” he said.

The commissioners decided on a 5-0 vote to come up with an ordinance like Lee County’s and post it for a public hearing when it’s ready.

In other action

• The County Commission approved 5-0 a resolution recognizing the Friends of the Library for their work in improving the library services in Pasco County and declaring Oct. 17 to 23 as National Friends of the Library Week in Pasco County. “We appreciate all the work that you do,” said County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley. Commissioner Moore said he spent a lot of time in the library as a child, and the new spaces created at the libraries will be very helpful. One new space is a recording studio with an engineer. “I think Commissioner Oakley has a new country album he can do there,” Moore said to laughter. Oakley said to remember to thank the citizens of Pasco County who voted for the bond issue for the library.

• The commission received a presentation from Roger Green, the director of the FIRST program in Pasco County. FIRST is an acronym for Forensic Institute of Research and Tactics, and Green said its goal is to transform public safety through research education and innovation. He talked about the work it’s doing at its facility, including cybersecurity, intelligence, K-9, human trafficking, urban search and rescue, and a rubble pile, as well as a “body farm,” where trainees learn how to study dead bodies to determine how they died.

• Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano said his offices are doing a good job and bringing in money for the county. He reported on the renovation of the Dade City office; the Tourist Development Tax, which he said brought in $3.5 million; and said that while he had hoped to bring in a check for $1.9 million, it was going to be $2.881 million. “It’s very much needed in the county,” Oakley said. “We appreciate all you’re doing.”