Buddy can I borrow a dime … to pay my panhandling fine?
Augusta commissioners decided this week to get local law enforcement to help fight aggressive panhandling in the city’s downtown business district and the Armstrong Galleria shopping center on Laney-Walker Boulevard.
The ordinance, which was requested by the Downtown Development Authority, would make panhandling a criminal offense that could subject violators to a fine or possible incarceration upon conviction.
“This behavior is running people away from Broad Street and the central business district,” Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek said. “I, for one, am for the rights of all people. But a person does not have a right to come up and interrupt my dinner or my stroll with my family and aggressively solicit money.
“I don’t care what kind of problems they have. They are invading my space and impacting the ability of my city to do business. And people do not feel safe.”
City Attorney Steve Shepard explained the ordinance specifically states that if a person is a known panhandler and he or she repeatedly stops or beckons to passers-by in a threatening tone or fashion, they would be in violation of the ordinance.
“It’s not just begging. It’s more than that,” Shepard said. “It’s aggressive panhandling. It has to be a conduct that is not just a bland request for money, like begging. It has to be more intimidating than that.”
Shepard said there is also a provision in the ordinance that provides an offender with a warning from sheriff’s deputies prior to action being taken against that individual.
Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams said that, while he understand the intent of the ordinance, he does not believe it can be practically enforced.
“I don’t agree with panhandling, but I certainly disagree with a fine or an incarceration of people who panhandle,” Williams said. “If we incarcerate those who don’t have money and are asking for money on the street, who is going to pay the bill in jail for the food that they are going to eat and the bed that they are going to stay in? Who’s going to handle that responsibility?”
The taxpayers of Richmond County will be the ones left holding the bill, Williams said.
“I think we are going to cause a greater burden by trying to incarcerate those who stand in front of you and ask you for a dollar,” Williams said, adding that the idea of fining such individuals was ridiculous. “If they are begging for money, they sure ain’t got nothing to pay no fines. That’s crazy to even talk about a fine for a man who is homeless. It just don’t make good sense. These are not people out there with a 9 to 5 (job).”
Augusta Commissioner Richard Colclough warned his colleagues that if the city tries to implement this ordinance it will put a severe strain on the city’s law enforcement center.
“Our jails are already full to capacity,” Colclough said. “If we approve this and start putting a bunch more people in jail, a judge is going to turn right around and order us to build another jail pod or something we don’t have the money to do right now.”
The city is in the process of acquiring new jail pods from funding in the recently approved sales tax list, but those facilities are expected to merely relieve the city’s existing overcrowding problem in the jails.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength told the Metro Spirit this week that arresting and incarcerating panhandlers and homeless people would be costly for taxpayers.
But Augusta Commissioner Betty Beard insisted that the city needed to support the ordinance in order to create a more inviting atmosphere in the downtown area.
“You don’t really feel very good when you are out and you’re a female and you have a child with you and people are coming up asking you for money,” said Beard, who lives in the downtown. “That has happened to me. And it makes me very uncomfortable, so I would like to see us do something about it.”
Augusta Commissioner J.R. Hatney said if the city is going to enforce panhandling in the downtown area, commissioners should also consider implementing the same restrictions in other areas of the county.
“This happens all over town,” Hatney said. “But we are saying that we are going to protect certain areas and let the rest of us to go to hell. I have a problem with that.”
Commissioners voted 9-1 to implement the ordinance in the downtown central business district and around Armstrong Galleria. Williams voted against the ordinance.
Hatney also suggested that if this ordinance is successful, commissioners should consider enforcing it in other areas of the city.
Shepard said that the ordinance could be enforced in selected areas around Augusta, but it would be considered unconstitutional if it was implemented countywide.
Colclough voted for the ordinance, but he told his colleagues to expect a visit from the sheriff in the near future.
“When the sheriff comes over here looking for some money, I want y’all to do the same thing you are doing today,” Colclough said. “I want you to divvy up your hat and go ahead and give him his money because he will be coming.”
In other news, commissioners voted 6-1 to cease paying the city’s former engineering director, Teresa Smith, on Friday.
Smith, who was fired in December, was left on administrative leave with pay while she considered the city’s offer of a six-month severance package. Smith’s yearly salary was more than $93,000.
Commissioners Jerry Brigham, Don Grantham, Jimmy Smith, Joe Bowles, Beard and Cheek voted to stop paying the former director. Commissioner Calvin Holland voted against the motion and Colclough abstained.
Commissioners Hatney and Williams were not present for the vote.
After the meeting, Holland said that he felt uncomfortable voting to take Teresa Smith off the payroll considering the manner in which she was fired.
“I just didn’t feel the procedure in which she was terminated was professional or appropriate,” Holland said. “The fact that there was no documentation against and even though we are at-will employees, I still feel that there should be some more information in reference to your work performance before you terminate her in the manner and the way that she was terminated.”
Buddy can I borrow a dime … to pay my panhandling fine?