By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Though police officials don’t believe it will curb homelessness in the city, the New Albany City Council moved to strengthen laws on aggressive panhandling this week.
On initial ballots, the council approved Thursday an ordinance that would prohibit aggressive panhandling within 20 feet of public buildings, schools and ATMs.
New Albany Councilwoman Shirley Baird sponsored the ordinance, and while she said it’s not an attack on the poor, it is a way to provide another layer of safety for residents.
Sometimes panhandlers approach people against their will or corner them in a place where the person who is being solicited feels uncomfortable, Baird said.
“It’s frightening, especially for a woman,” she said.
But the ordinance likely won’t decrease the number of homeless people living in the city, New Albany Police Maj. Keith Whitlow said.
Baird received a letter from New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Director Rose Frost , which she had read into the record on Thursday, that supported the ordinance.
Frost said the library has experienced some problems with aggressive solicitation on its property, and requested the council approve the measure.
Whitlow said he’s spoken with Frost about the issue, and added there’s a trespassing law backed by state statute that would apply to some of the library’s issues.
A person can be arrested for trespassing, however, since it would be a city ordinance, police officers could only write citations and assess penalties for aggressive panhandling, Whitlow continued.
Initial fines would be $25, however, a third aggressive panhandling citation within a year could result in a penalty of up to $250 under the ordinance.
But since people who would be guilty of such offenses obviously have fallen on hard times, getting them to pay such a fee would be very unlikely, Whitlow said.
Councilman John Gonder opposed the ordinance for more altruistic reasons.
The purpose of the ordinance is to provide assurance for residents, but what about the homeless and those in need who may be affected by the new restrictions, Gonder asked.
“These people who are panhandling, they are not comfortable, and they are not safe,” he said.
Businesses approach the city frequently and essentially threaten to leave New Albany if the council doesn’t approve tax abatements for their properties, Gonder continued.
Such negotiations are a form of aggressive solicitation as well, but the council allows it, he said.
But Baird emphasized the ordinance is about safety, not about harming the homeless or poor.
In a related matter, Councilman Dan Coffey gauged support on Thursday for appropriating $25,000 for Haven House Services in Jeffersonville.
The homeless shelter houses several people from New Albany, and the nonprofit could use the financial support to continue its mission, Coffey said.
A majority of council members said they would support such an appropriation, including Baird. Coffey said a measure to release the funds could be brought for a vote as early as January.
The city also gave Haven House $25,000 in 2009.
As for the panhandling measure, it will require one more ballot before it becomes official, and that likely will come next month.
The ordinance was approved 5-1 on initial reading, as Gonder was the lone council member to vote against the measure. Councilman Greg Phipps abstained from voting, and council members Diane McCartin-Benedetti and Kevin Zurschmiede were absent from Thursday’s meeting.