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Tuesday, Apr 15 2014 06:17 PM

Panhandling law will get final vote

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By THEO DOUGLAS, Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

An ordinance outlawing aggressive panhandling and an agreement continuing the city’s successful homeless trash pickup program both could be approved at today’s meeting of the Bakersfield City Council.

The two proposals offer divergent approaches to different segments of the city’s disadvantaged population.

The proposed ordinance would make “aggressive solicitation” a misdemeanor or an infraction and ban all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit. If approved, it could become law by late May.

City staff recommends the council approve the ordinance, which was drafted in response to pleas for help from downtown business owners who say panhandlers are driving away customers.

Bakersfield’s city attorney and police chief have said enforcing the ordinance will remain a low priority compared to more serious crimes, and those cited must first be seen aggressively panhandling by a Bakersfield police officer.

Homeless advocates said they are reaching out to high numbers of homeless in downtown Bakersfield and have asked for a six-month delay in enforcing the ordinance, worried those most in need of help will scatter if police begin writing tickets.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing that they didn’t want to give us six extra months. It just seemed like they just wanted to ram it through,” said Jim Wheeler, chairman of the steering committee for the Kern County Homeless Collaborative. “We are going to hold the Downtown Business Association’s feet to the fire about helping us and cooperating with us and doing the education part.”

Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl said that if the ordinance is approved, his group will partner with agencies that help the homeless.

“We’ve already started the conversation on what kind of signage we can put together and offer out to our members,” Bartl said. “If there’s anything this ordinance has done, it’s increased awareness that this is an issue citywide.”

In other business, the council will consider extending for 14 months the contract hiring 18 Bakersfield Homeless Center clients to pick up trash on city highway shoulders and ramps.

The BHC residents, once homeless, have picked up more than 200 tons of trash since their contract was approved April 30, 2013.

Yet because the city didn’t hire all 18 people at once, Bakersfield only spent $305,000 of the contract’s $561,600 cost. It will roll the remaining $256,600 into the new agreement.

The new contract’s cost is higher, at $385,640 — in part because the state minimum wage has risen from $8 to $9 per hour — but Caltrans, Kern Council of Governments and other sponsors will pay the remaining $129,040.

Ward 5 Councilman Harold Hanson said the city is doing the right thing targeting panhandlers and helping the homeless.

“One group is working and doing honest work, and the other just wants something for nothing, that’s the way I look at it,” Hanson said.

The council also will consider spending $869,328 to purchase four properties needed to widen Rosedale Highway, and $205,000 to purchase one property needed to widen 24th Street.

Bakersfield has purchased about 90 percent of the land it needs to widen Rosedale Highway, a Thomas Roads Improvement Program project, and expects to call for bids this fall.

The city is now doing appraisals of the 23 full residential properties it needs to purchase to widen 24th Street.

During closed session, the council will hear an update from the city attorney on a lawsuit brought against the city and Caltrans by Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project, accusing the agencies of violating the California Environmental Quality Act by approving an environmental impact report on the project.

Also in closed session, the council will hear possible next moves after the city prevailed in a lawsuit targeting Bakersfield’s medical marijuana ordinance.

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