Illegal panhandlers and graffiti vandals, beware. The Baltimore County Council is hoping to get tougher on people who beg for money or spray paint on buildings.
At its work session on Tuesday, the council discussed two bills that seek to change current laws governing panhandling on county roads and penalties for possessing spray paint cans with the intent to deface property.
The sponsors of both bills said Tuesday the intent is to limit panhandling on state roads in the county and to deter graffiti damage to businesses.
It is unclear how the changes would improve enforcement, considering the existing laws appear to have been carried out on a limited basis, if at all. The council is scheduled to vote on the changes on Monday.
Todd Huff, a Republican who represents the 3rd District, said at the work session that his panhandling bill would amend a county law passed in 2006 to include language expanding the definition of the practice detailed by a 2009 state law.
The amendments in Huff's bill would make it clear that groups or individuals who want to panhandle on state roads would need to obtain a county permit. They now need permits only to panhandle on county roads. The bill also expands the law to include road shoulders, as defined by state law.
Huff said the changes are needed to allow county police to enforce the portion of the law passed by the state.
"That's why we're having panhandler issues on [state] roadways—because police won't enforce it," Huff said. "This will help our police officers clean up our streets."
County enforcement of the law has been spotty.
In 2006, the council passed the law making panhandling without a permit a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. But the law wasn't enforced by code enforcement officers, and less than a year later was changed to make it a criminal offense enforced by the police department.
The county issues a few dozen permits, mostly to nonprofit organizations, each year.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been critical of the county's attempt to limit panhandling by homeless people but no lawsuits have been filed since the law was enacted.
The county has issued 55 permits to solicit donations from intersections in the county during the current fiscal year that began July 1, said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman.
It is not clear how many citations, if any, have been written by police. Previously, the police department has said it doesn't track such citations.
A county spokesperson was unable to immediately determine if police now track these citations and if any have been issued. It is also unclear if the county has collected any fines for the citations.
The council also is expected to vote next week on a bill that would double the penalty for anyone found carrying a spray paint can with the "intent to deface, injure, damage or unlawfully apply paint to another person's property without consent," documents state.
"Graffiti causes a lot of damage to businesses, is an eyesore and is a hidden tax on businesses," said 5th District Republican Councilman David Marks, who is sponsoring the bill along with 6th District Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins.
Marks said the idea to increase the penalty came from a review of other urban counties.
Currently, the violation for such an infraction in the county is a fine of $500 or 90 days in jail or both.
State law prohibits the willful and malicious destruction or defacing of property. Penalties include a fine of $2,500 or three years in jail or both for property damages of more than $500. The fine and jail time drop to $500 and or 60 days in jail for damages under $500.
Councilman Ken Oliver, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, asked Marks and Bevins for the number of citations or fines under the current law.
Both said they were not able to get information about the number of people fined or arrested under the current law.
"If we don't have any dollar amounts and we don't know how many people have been captured, why are we going to increase it to $1,000?" Oliver asked.
Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., a Democrat who represents the 7th district, said the increased fines could help prevent vandalism.
"It seems to me, councilman, that this would serve as a deterrent," Olszewski said. "If you increase the fine, someone will think twice about it. But I agree with you that until we start taking the issue very seriously and catching the individuals that are doing it and give them a stiff penalty, maybe even some jail time, they're going to continue to do it."
Oliver was unmoved and said that while he wouldn't necessarily vote against the bill, he was not convinced an increased fine would make a difference.
"It's not a deterrent if we don't enforce it," Oliver said after Tuesday's meeting.
The council is also being asked to consider:
- Designating nearly 230 acres of industrial zoned land in Woodlawn as an enterprise zone. (More at Pikesville Patch.)
- Several land acquisitions to expand roads, including the New Forge Road extension in Perry Hall, the widening of Owings Mills Boulevard, and widening of Rolling Road between Orchard Avenue and Liberty Road in the Woodlawn area.
- Extension of supplemental death benefits to county volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. The benefit would apply to volunteers who were once part of the county retirement system and have 15 years of service but have not yet drawn their benefits. The bill provides the spouse with 2 percent per year of service multiplied by the number of years the volunteer had in the county pension system.
This story was updated to correct the death benefit to volunteer fire fighers who die in the line of duty.