LARGO — City employees at Southwest Recreation Center were forced to stop giving free haircuts to underprivileged children this month after an anonymous resident claiming to be a city employee said the city was breaking the law by practicing barbering without a license.
Largo's mayor and the parks department staff saw it this way: Yes, the free haircuts broke the law, but if the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office can do the same thing at its homeless shelter, what's the big deal?
The city staff member giving the haircuts, said parks and recreation director Joan Byrne, was not a licensed barber and thus was in violation of a state statute requiring a license to cut hair.
But it's a shame the haircuts have to stop, Byrne said in an e-mail.
"Many of these kids could not afford a regular trip to the barber and this opportunity was both good for their self-esteem and was highly valued by the recipients and their families," Byrne wrote.
When the matter came up during Largo's regular City Commission meeting last Tuesday, Mayor Patricia Gerard expressed her disappointment.
"I'm really sorry we've had to stop doing the haircuts. I think it's damn mean-spirited to make a point of that," Gerard said. "What is your problem, whoever it was who complained about that?"
Gerard also pointed out that many charitable agencies and penal institutions across the county and state do the same — including the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter.
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Marianne Pasha confirmed that an inmate at the county jail provides barber services to the homeless in the county shelter, as well as for other jail inmates.
Pasha said the haircuts involve only an electric shear and combs, and the inmate, who she said is a former barber himself, though currently unlicensed, has years of experience.
Pasha said she is unsure whether the state statute applies to the jail. An examination of the state statute, Chapter 476.044, does show an exception that might apply to the jail, exempting "Persons employed in federal, state, or local institutions, hospitals, or military bases as barbers whose practice is limited to the inmates, patients, or authorized military personnel of such institutions, hospitals, or bases."
City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig said that based on a conversation between Largo police Chief John Carroll and state regulators, the Office of Business and Professional Regulation is aware that illegal barbering goes on across the state and generally doesn't enforce its rules on small-scale operations like Largo's.
"They are aware that this happens everywhere … across the state. They don't try to enforce the rule. They say it's like a slap on the wrist and they tell you not to do it anymore," Craig said.
However, because the haircuts have been put under a spotlight, Craig took action.
"I have terminated haircuts. We're not doing them anymore," he said, though with a tinge of regret.
"A lot of people are going to be put out now that kids are going to have to figure out how to get a haircut," he said.
Craig is looking into ways the city may be able to resume offering haircuts to underprivileged children.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes said one of his concerns was that the city may be unfairly competing with actual Largo barber shops.
"There's local barbers down there also and I don't think they're very happy about the city competing with them," Holmes said.
According to one local barber, George Yunko, owner of George's Barber Shop on Indian Rocks Road, it's not so much the competition from the city that irks him, but the fact that the city is operating a barber service without a license.
"If they wanted to give free haircuts away through licensed barbers — and (the barbers) wanted to give away their time — I don't have a problem with it," said Yunko, who has been in business for 24 years.
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.