TAMPA — As the Tampa City Council continues to balk at tougher panhandling restrictions, Hillsborough County's top administrator indicated Monday that he is inclined to keep the county's ban in place.
County Administrator Mike Merrill is heading a committee crafting a panhandling ordinance for county roads and for those in Hillsborough's three cities: Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace. Merrill did not say what he will recommend, but said public safety is his top concern.
"No matter what configuration, no matter what option we come up with, that really does have to be at the top of the list," he said. "Jobs are important, economic development is important, but we would never put anybody at risk just to make a living."
Merrill hopes to present his recommendation at the Feb. 2 County Commission meeting.
Panhandling within 4 feet of the right of way on county roads has been banned since 1991. Six months ago, St. Petersburg passed a wide-ranging solicitation ban that encompasses newspaper hawkers and charities that solicit on roadsides.
The Tampa City Council has declined three times in recent months to enact a similar ban, citing the cost of enforcement and high unemployment. A petition drive to put the question before city voters failed last month.
At Monday's meeting of Merrill's committee, law enforcement officials said soliciting on roads is dangerous, regardless of whether the person is a panhandler, a firefighter collecting money in a boot or a vendor selling the Sunday paper.
"As long as you have anyone out in the street, you have a propensity for danger or injury," said Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. J.R. Burton. "Isn't what we're hearing from taxpayers is they're tired of (panhandlers on the roads) and want a change?"
Other options floated at the meeting include requiring vendors and charities to comply with safety regulations or limiting solicitation to one or two days a week.
In addition to next month's proposal, Merrill said he will review a Sarasota program that sends intoxicated homeless people to mental health and drug treatment instead of jail. Sarasota County spent $3 million on the program, which Merrill said "is a big number for" Hillsborough in a tight budget year.
Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.