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Commission bans ‘pedestrian-motorist engagement’ at county’s intersections

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Apr 28, 2021

nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com

Lee County has banned panhandling at intersections and along roadways within its jurisdiction.

While Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch noted the ordinance approved by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday does not use the word “panhandling,” it bars “interactions between pedestrians and motorists” in county rights-of-way and at medians.

Those in violation of the ordinance can now face fines up to $500 or a maximum jail sentence of 60 days.

The measure was presented as targeting the growing number of panhandlers along county roads as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and homelessness remains an issue although the job market has heated up.

Wesch said the ordinance is “for the safety and protection of our rights-of-way and that while a class of individuals will be impacted, the purpose behind the ordinance is to keep all people safe.

“This is to prohibit interactions in our rights-of-way that could lead to injury and or death,” he said.

Wesch cited statistics that show Lee County ranks 11th in the nation for most dangerous places for pedestrians.

According to county staff, 22 pedestrians were killed last year in motor vehicle crashes in Lee County.

A statement released by Lee County government after the passage of the ordinance states the Lee County Sheriff’s Office will begin educating the public about the ban. Enforcement is considered a last option.

Lee County Assistant County Manager Marc Mora said “not all panhandlers are homeless” and that the county has a homeless day resource center with the Salvation Army to provide services to the homeless, including food, showers, counselors, shelter and job searches. They service more than 100 people a day Monday through Saturday.

“If there are panhandlers seeking out assistance with food, shelter, that is where we would like to direct them,” he said.

Mora noted the county has appropriated millions of dollars to local food banks during the pandemic. Since the pandemic, the county has appropriated more than $5 million in food assistance programs.

Commission Chair Kevin Ruane said the Salvation Army’s facilities offering food, shower and other services is not yet near capacity.

Ruane also said there have been incidents that led to the county’s action.

“Our first responsibility is about public safety,” he said.

County Manager Roger Desjarlais said he has seen panhandlers at intersections with small children.

“To see somebody standing at an intersection with a young child, that’s terrifying,” he said.

The panhandling is also a distraction to drivers, he added.

Other officials took similar views.

“It’s not safe for somebody to stand in the middle of the road,” County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said.

“This will hopefully help remove one more distraction from the drivers,” Commissioner Brian Hamman said. “Safety is really the big priority here.”

While the ordinance only pertains to unincorporated areas of Lee County, Pendergrass wants to also have towns and cities contacted to adopt similar ordinances if they wish.

He said he has offered people on the sidewalk food and “more times than not it’s denied.

“This is not about putting people in jail. This is trying to protect people,” Ruane said. “I have empathy and sympathy but I’m also going to protect my citizens here.”