West Melbourne considers fines for aggressive panhandlers

Councilman worries businesses will not move to city

WEST MELBOURNE, Fla. – West Melbourne may be the next city to say no to "aggressive" panhandlers, a mostly pre-emptive move that city leaders say will give police authority to stop future problems.

Councilman Bill Mettrick told fellow members at a previous meeting he has received complaints from citizens, mostly coming from patrons at Hammock Landing shopping center on Palm Bay Road, that beggars at the nearby bus stop are being aggressive. He is concerned such activity could deter businesses from moving to town, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.

"The complaints that I received, observing what I've seen, and it's hurting businesses," he said. "We promote, we try to get business here, and if we have people outside deterring people to go into the store, it's deterring businesses," he said.

The council will consider the ordinance at its meeting Tuesday night.

The ordinance would target beggars who follow or touch people, make repeat requests for money, use "abusive or profane" language, block people from getting away or otherwise intimidate people. It applies to the following areas: bus stops, city parking lots and parks, and within 15 feet of sidewalk cafes, ATMs and government buildings.

The council wanted to make sure it would not stop Boy Scouts from fundraising outside stores, for example, and other legitimate soliciting.

People who violate the ordinance would face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. It would be up to police to enforce.

"The teeth of this law is that we could respond to a complaint — if we don't witness it, we can't make an arrest — but we can advise the individual that there's a law on the books and they shouldn't do it (and) give them a warning," Police Chief Richard Wiley said.

"I don't think it's been a major problem in our city," he said. "I think the councilperson was being smart in putting it on the books in case it becomes an issue."

There was a similar ban in Cocoa Village that was passed last month, and for several years the Melbourne City Council considered such an ordinance. The Melbourne council ended up not approving one, instead seeking other alternatives to address an uproar against panhandlers in the downtown area.