TAMPA — Hillsborough County already has a law on the books that makes it a misdemeanor to panhandle, seek donations or do business on road medians and street corners.
Still, Commissioner Mark Sharpe asked county officials Wednesday to look for ways to strengthen the law and explore ways to get Hillsborough's three cities to adopt the same measure. He got unanimous support from the rest of the board.
"Everyone recognizes the problem has gotten worse," Sharpe said after the vote. "What we have isn't working."
Sharpe's call to arms comes nearly two months after St. Petersburg adopted tough measures banning solicitations along many major roadways and began making arrests after it went into effect June 13. The law applies not only to those pleading for money, but to newspaper hawkers and people raising money for charity.
The St. Petersburg Times, which uses independent contractors to sell Sunday newspapers at major intersections, initially sued in an effort to overturn the law on First Amendment grounds. The complaint was withdrawn after an initial unfavorable ruling.
Reports since the St. Petersburg law was enacted have suggested some homeless people and others in need have migrated across Tampa Bay, where the rules are less stringent — at least in Tampa.
Tampa allows roadway solicitations, so long as those doing business don't impede traffic. Solicitors are required to wear brightly colored safety vests.
Hillsborough County has a stricter ordinance than St. Petersburg, banning solicitations within 4 feet of any road. Tampa City Council member Joseph Caetano has pushed to adopt a similar rule but has failed to win support.
Sheriff's Maj. Clyde Eisenberg said violators typically are given one warning and then arrested on a second offense. He said the agency takes the matter seriously.
In fact, the agency recently assigned four deputies to a six-week operation focused on roadway solicitations. He said he believes the number of people hitting up motorists has increased sharply in the past 18 months.
"We regularly have complaints from citizens," he said.
Sharpe's proposal requests that interim County Administrator Mike Merrill meet with city officials, law enforcement, charity groups known for roadway fund-raising, and homeless advocates to develop a unified response.
Sharpe said he is open to suggestions that would accommodate charities, perhaps assisting in their fundraising in other ways. He also said has a compassion for those who have fallen on hard times. The county, he added, needs to look for better ways to get them the help they need.
"I think everyone agrees, including the ACLU, that a street corner is not the proper place for those services to be provided," he said.
In other action, the board:
• Voted unanimously to support renaming the College Hill Library in central Tampa after C. Blythe Andrews Jr., the former publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper, who died in January.
• Scheduled an Aug. 18 public hearing to consider a ballot proposal to redefine the work of the county's internal performance auditor.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 226-3387.