TAMPA — It's about to get a bit tougher to panhandle in unincorporated parts of Hillsborough County.
Commissioners Wednesday expanded an existing panhandling ban to prohibit begging for money or selling products such as newspapers from the sides and medians of all roadways.
Previously the ban extended only to county roads, though Sheriff's Office deputies often cited those soliciting on state roads with trespassing with the support of the Florida Department of Transportation.
So, effectively, the 6-1 vote makes it easier for deputies to figure out how to cite offenders without having to figure out what kind of road they're on.
"This modification is actually going to make it much easier for the deputies," said Col. Greg Brown, who oversees traffic patrols for the Sheriff's Office.
People who violate the ban are subject to fines of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail under the ordinance, the expansion of which will take effect in coming weeks. However, Brown said first-time offenders are typically given a warning, then cited if they reappear, while deputies also try to find services such as mental health counseling or shelter for homeless people.
"The goal is not to put these people in jail," Brown said. "It's to get them off the roadway."
The vote does not apply at this time within the Tampa city limits, where City Council members last month backtracked on a proposal to ban street solicitations on major roadways. Inside the city, people can still solicit along roadways provided they wear reflective vests.
County officials intend to meet with counterparts in the city after municipal elections conclude later this month to see if the newly elected Tampa officials favor restrictions similar to those enacted by commissioners.
Commissioners had formed a task force last year to address the issue, hoping it would lead to uniform rules across the county, which they have so far failed to achieve.
The cities of Temple Terrace and Plant City already have passed restrictions similar to those expanded by the county.
Several people spoke against the changes in the panhandling ordinance Wednesday, though most were representing the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune and their Sunday newspaper hawkers.
Together, they estimated that a combined 20,000 newspapers are sold along roadways each Sunday, employing hundreds and providing a service that some people clearly want.
Sonia Long, who supervises the contract newspaper sellers for the Times, said she has a finance degree from Florida A&M University, but said the economy has made it tough to find a job utilizing her training. A single mom, she said selling newspapers has helped her put food on the table.
"Everyone that is so concerned about public safety has a job," she said. "You could be in my seat, too."
Commissioner Mark Sharpe for a time attempted to craft a window for solicitations in the morning and early afternoon hours on Sundays.
But Brown said that would create only further confusion for deputies, and that safety concerns still exist.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Les Miller pointed out that the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper, which largely serves African-American readers, relies on roadside sales on Tuesdays and Fridays. Miller was the lone vote against the outright ban.
"I didn't take an oath of office to put people out of work," Miller said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]