ST. PETERSBURG — Civil rights activists, charities and businesses slammed the City Council for banning soliciting in medians last week, but similar bans already are in effect across Tampa Bay.
The measure, which took effect Thursday, is as strict as longtime bans in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
And they're spreading.
Largo banned soliciting from roadways and medians Tuesday. Tampa, which requires a permit to solicit in medians, is considering a stricter ban.
Local governments say the bans are safety measures. They also curtail panhandling, a growing issue as the economy spirals down and more unemployed people hit the streets.
Critics say the bans infringe on everyone's civil rights and hamper charitable fundraising efforts.
The bans prohibit anyone from standing in a median unless crossing the street. There are no exceptions: Political candidates and their supporters, charities, newspaper hawkers, booster clubs and panhandlers are now banned.
St. Petersburg police have spent the past week warning panhandlers about the new ordinance. Officers will most likely begin enforcing the measure next week, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
"We encourage people to call if they see a violation," Proffitt said.
Fines range from $50 for a first offense up to $500 for a fourth.
Enforcement could be tricky, because violators could claim they are merely crossing the street.
Pinellas Park allows insured charitable groups to solicit, and no one has been caught violating the measure this year. Hillsborough has cited 20 people since 2007.
St. Petersburg officials have haggled a ban for years. Similar measures were proposed in 2004 and 2007 but jettisoned because of public opposition. The council returned to the issue this year after a recent ban on downtown panhandling pushed beggars into other neighborhoods.
The council received more than two dozen e-mails in support of the median ban.
"We don't need panhandlers on every corner," said Judy Ellis, president of the Lakewood Estates Civic Association.
Critics say they are unsure whether they will challenge the measure.
The St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters collected $25,000 this year during its annual "Fill the Boot" campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The group expects a 75 percent drop in donations next year because of the new ordinance.
"We are disappointed," said Rick Pauley, vice president of the association. "We feel they are fixing a problem that doesn't need to be fixed."
The Pinellas American Civil Liberties Union is also debating whether to challenge the measure. "We are very concerned about any potential infringement of First Amendment rights," said Raymond Arsenault, the group's vice president.
The St. Petersburg Times has asked its hawkers to sell Sunday newspapers from sidewalks instead of medians. "That's the only thing we can do unless we fold up and stop selling newspapers," said Maurice Beausoleil, an independent contractor who handles the Times' Sunday sales in Pinellas County. "We just don't know what the impact is going to be yet."