TAMPA — Citing high unemployment, the City Council on Thursday rejected calls to ban panhandling on city streets.
"We have a 13 percent unemployment rate in Hillsborough County," said Chairman Tom Scott. "Everybody who has an income, you ought to thank God every day for that. You never know where life is going to take you."
City Council member Joseph Caetano, who represents New Tampa, has been pressing more than a year for a ban.
The problem has been getting worse, he said, because Tampa's laws are more lax than in surrounding areas — most significantly St. Petersburg, which banned on-street panhandling and solicitations in June.
"It's a serious situation," he said. "We need to get a handle on it and do something about it."
He made a motion to direct city attorneys to craft an ordinance modeled after the St. Petersburg one to prohibit transactions in or along roads. The ban would have applied to panhandlers and people selling water, food or newspapers.
His motion died, though, with no one to second it.
Mayor Pam Iorio said she supports a ban.
"We do need a stricter ordinance," she said after the meeting. "The current situation is a distraction to motorists and unsafe for the panhandlers."
City Attorney Chip Fletcher recommended the ban and told the council he could have an ordinance to review in a week.
But council members rejected the idea, even after also hearing from neighborhood leaders who asked for an emergency ban and from police Assistant Chief John Bennett, who called panhandling a public safety issue.
Bennett said for the past three years, pedestrian deaths and injuries caused by vehicles have dropped and he wants that to continue. He said the growing number of people approaching cars in the streets could lead to more incidents.
"I can see an escalation in the complaints," Bennett said. "Now they're coming in and they're saying the solicitation in the right of way is becoming more assertive, bordering on aggressive."
The public safety issue resonated with neighborhood groups. Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods — an umbrella group of neighborhood associations — this week unanimously voted to ask the council for an immediate ban.
"It's a very dangerous situation, and it has escalated extremely exponentially since St. Pete passed their law," said Sue Lyon, a member of the organization.
She pointed out that the St. Petersburg ordinance withstood a challenge from the St. Petersburg Times, which uses street vendors to sell newspapers.
"We want this handled today. Not tomorrow. Not in six months. Not when you get around to it. Today," said Spencer Kass, another member.
But council members were more moved by stories of people trying to scrape by.
"I have a right to earn a living," said Sonia Long. She said she has a college degree and never expected she would support her children by selling newspapers on an east Tampa street corner.
"I challenge you to show me how many accidents are because of us," she said, noting that a recent uptick in bicycling deaths wasn't caused by street vendors.
Darren Driscoll, an independent contractor for the St. Petersburg Times, said he employs 180 people in Hillsborough County every Sunday. In five years, he said, none of his workers has been involved in an accident.
"I feel we're part of the solution with today's economy," he said.
Kay Andrews, publisher of the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, said people sell newspapers on the street to put food on their tables.
"It has supplemented many incomes," she said. "It's unfortunate that a lot of our elderly people and our young people have to do this, but they do it. They do it with integrity and honesty."
As for panhandlers, she said, they could be robbing people instead of asking for money. And drivers can choose not to give.
"I do stop because I never know if Jesus is walking up to my car," she said.
Council members scoffed at penalties the St. Petersburg ordinance carries with it: up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Scott said taxpayers have to foot the bill for jail time and the money for the fine would have to be collected by more panhandling.
Council member Mary Mulhern said before she voted for a ban, she wanted to see statistics showing that street vendors and panhandlers pose a safety risk.
The Hillsborough County Commission has created a committee to develop recommendations for handling the growing number of panhandlers. Scott said he wants to see what that group comes up with.
"At least they're studying it, and taking a look at it, and gathering more information," he said.
The group first met in September and plans to meet again in November.
"There are already ordinances in place," Mike Merrill, interim Hillsborough County administrator, told the council. "The purpose of the committee is to find out why they're not working the way they're intended to."
The county has an ordinance banning all solicitation within four feet of the right-of-way. Temple Terrace and Plant City also have rules that limit solicitation in those cities. Tampa allows solicitation in city streets, but requires people to wear safety vests when asking for money, fundraising or selling items.
Merrill said the committee has agreed that public safety is a concern and rules should be consistent across communities.
"We affect each other because these individuals can be transient and the problem just moves around," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.