Monongalia County moving toward comprehensive panhandling ordinance

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom convened a meeting Thursday with officials from Morgantown, Star City, Westover, and Granville with the goal of developing and enacting a county-wide panhandling ordinance. Bloom used an ordinace from Henrico, Va., as a model that has withstood some court challenges.

In recent months, reports of panhandling have increased, and some residents have also complained of increased aggression. Some have reported being confronted while stopped at traffic signals or along roadways in conditions of poor visibility.

In Star City, where there’s a concentration of retail businesses, Police Chief Jennifer Colebank said in many cases they remove the panhandlers, but they quickly relocate to the next-door retail-heavy municipality, Granville. Colebank also acknowledged the reports of aggression.

“It’s a lot of time for drivers; they’re distracted by people standing in the roadway, and that alone is a hazard that can cause a lot of problems,” Colebank said. “And there’s the aggression behind some of it, they can get angry if you don’t give them money.”

Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Mark Ralston said without a county-wide order, panhandling will be stopped. He said the difficulty in the past has been balancing the rights of the traveling public with those of panhandlers.

“If there is a local ordinance that is court-tested that our officers can work with, then that is something we could do, and that would be good for everyone,” Ralston said.

Downtown Morgantown has battled similar reports in the last two years and has seen an increase recently. Deputy Chief of Police P.J. Scott said panhandlers will find another area quickly because of the current patchwork of ordinances. Scott wants the ordinance but also wants a way to inform people panhandling during a police contact about available services rather than a citation or arrest.

“We’re looking for a solution, not just a bandaid for Morgantown’s problem, Granville’s problem, or the county’s—we want it to be across the board,” Scott said.

Colebank said since the problem has spiked, police have seen how far people will go in their effort to panhandle. Reports indicate the amount of money people can collect from the random public is large enough to justify the risks.

“We’ve seen small children out there with their parents, and that’s not a behavior I would want to have a child exhibit while cars zoom by on the road,” Colebank said.

An important part of the ordinance will be education. Granville Chief of Police Craig Corkrean wants duty officers to have a list of non-profits that can help those they come into contact with and take a survey. Through the survey, police could find out why people are on the side of the road asking for money and pair them with services to help.

“It’s about helping people first and foremost, but some people just don’t want help,” Corkrean said. “So, we have to differentiate between the people who want help and the people who do not want help and deal with them accordingly.”

Bloom said lawyers will review the proposed ordinance language with the goal of having something in place by late summer.