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Bloom calls on Morgantown, WVU to help address “major” panhandling problem

MORGANTOWN — Just as it did in 2016 and then again 2019, panhandling has become a local topic of discussion.  

But this time the focus has spread beyond downtown Morgantown. 

Following up on a proposal he first introduced during the public portion of Tuesday’s Morgantown City Council meeting, Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom on Wednesday reiterated his call for Morgantown and WVU to work with the county to establish a new, uniform panhandling ordinance. 

Bloom explained that soliciting and panhandling in the city and county “has become out of hand,” adding, “It’s become a major problem.” 

He said the time, effort and resources poured into the many local social service offerings are undermined when people can utilize those services and support other activities by panhandling. 

“We have a great reputation for caring for others. What we offer and try to do to help individuals; such as hot meals, accommodations, harm reduction, medical services, mental health resources,” Bloom said. “But the services are designed to help people, not create a cycle of behavior detrimental to this community.”   

But there are already panhandling laws on the books in Morgantown and in the county. 

The county’s law, passed in 2010, says it’s illegal to solicit in, on or along a roadway or an ingress/egress from a road onto private property. Further, it’s illegal to block or interfere with the safe passage of a person or vehicle while panhandling and once asked to leave, it’s illegal to panhandle on private property in the county. 

Asked about the issue in 2016, former Monongalia County Sheriff Al Kisner said the problems cleared up when the sheriff’s department began enforcing the law. 

“I think people know we do take it seriously,” Kisner said at the time. “Our procedure is, we’ll go out once and warn them. Their name and identification is logged and we do an incident report with that information. If we get another call on that person, they’re issued a citation they then would have to appear in court for.” 

Morgantown’s law focuses more on “aggressive panhandling.”  

When the issue was last raised, former Police Chief Ed Preston explained it’s a violation of the First Amendment to say someone can’t ask for money on public property. 

It becomes illegal, however, when those requests become persistent and/or threatening; include a physical component like blocking a path or following someone or take place near a bank entrance or ATM machine. 

Bloom says everyone needs to get on the same page, explaining, “It would be advantageous if we all were working under the same law and provide the same level of enforcement,” Bloom said. 

City resident, and city council candidate, James Giuliani said the issue is more about enforcement than the need for new laws. 

“This is a novel idea, but the city has ordinances in place. Now the county who doesn’t — you do, but obviously you don’t enforce yours — wants to make a better panhandling ordinance for all parties to properly establish and use to address the problem,” Giuliani told members of the commission. “So, who is going to enforce this ordinance? We already have laws which need enforced.” 

Granville Mayor Patty Lewis followed that up explaining Granville also has panhandling laws on the books that it routinely enforces.  

“We do enforce our ordinance. We can’t do anything about Chaplin Hill and the lights out there though, because that’s out of our jurisdiction,” she said. “Yesterday we got a call from one of our councilmen that there was a panhandler in the Target area, and we sent police immediately to address it. We do address it in our community.”