Commissioners Discuss Proposed Panhandling Ordinance, Public Hearing Set for April 19

Published Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 5:19 pm

By Jesse Wood

The Watauga County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on a draft ordinance regulating panhandling and solicitation on Tuesday, April 19 at 5:30 p.m. in the Watauga County Administration Building.

This topic first came up a few months ago in board meetings because of the rise of panhandling in shifts occurring at intersections leading out of the Town of Boone. Town staff and personnel then met with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office multiple times to find a resolution.

panhandling

Language in the proposed ordinance

The proposed ordinance requires people panhandling or soliciting to secure a permit from the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office. The permit is good for one year and is free. View the entire proposed ordinance here.

On Tuesday morning, Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said that while this proposed ordinance wasn’t perfect it was warranted.

“Unfortunately, it’s an ordinance I think needs to be adopted, but to be fair to both sides, there is a fine line between public safety and freedom of speech,” Hagaman said.

Hagaman mentioned that this ordinance doesn’t suppress the freedom of speech and that law enforcement will work to network those panhandling with nonprofits, government programs and faith-based services that help those in need.

Hagaman mentioned that a lot of the issue surrounding panhandling could be avoided if the folks soliciting were “plugged” into the many services that are provided in Watauga County.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy said that he felt it was a “slippery slope” to deny some people access to public space.

“I just have some issues starting to limit access to public space. I understand this issue is going to be hard to resolve. To me, we begin a slippery slope if some people can be in a public space and others can’t,” Kennedy said. “I am concerned about that but there will always be people gaming or abusing the system.”

Chair Jimmy Hodges said he was in favor of the ordinance and that he hoped this ordinance would help some of the problems that have occurred at Brookshire Park.

“If people want to come here and they are legal and don’t have a criminal background, I don’t see anything in the world wrong with this,” Hodges said, adding that he does have a problem with people coming to Boone and using up taxpayer’s resources for “unlawful purposes.”

Commissioner John Welch added that the “best thing” regarding this ordinance is that the sheriff’s office will maintain a list of volunteers and agencies willing to help applicants in need. Whenever a person applies for a solicitation permit, the applicant will receive the list of nonprofits, social service programs and faith-based agencies that are willing to provide assistance.

Hagaman said he hopes to coordinate with volunteers and agencies to round out this “clearinghouse” list.

The commissioners will hear from the public on April 19 before voting on this ordinance.

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