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Mayor Says Panhandlers Should Pay to Beg

November 13, 1990

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) _ Mayor Anthony Senecal has his hand out to panhandlers, hoping a proposed $50-a-year licensing fee will persuade them to move on.

″I’ve always been appalled that people who come downtown to shop are always being asked, ’Have you got 25 cents? Have you got 50 cents?‴ Senecal said. ″That’s bull. It isn’t right. Pretty soon they’re going to stop coming downtown to shop.″

Senecal wants to require panhandlers to buy a $25 license every six months. Violators could get a $500 fine and 10 days in jail.

City Council is scheduled to consider the ordinance Thursday.

James Tobin, 63, who says he ″panhandles some,″ doubted the ordinance would do much good.

″I panhandle when I go broke,″ he said. ″I guess I’ll buy a license if I have to, but it ain’t right. It just ain’t right.″

Robert O’Brien, spokesman for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the proposal preposterous and said the group may challenge it.

Robert Bastress, an expert in constitutional law at West Virginia University, said panhandling is a form of commercial speech. ″The Supreme Court has recognized that commercial speech is entitled to some protection under the Constitution, not as much as other forms of speech, perhaps, but some protection,″ he said.

The idea came to the mayor after three men asked him for money during the three-block walk from his tobacco shop to City Hall.

″We can’t afford having people on the street giving people who come downtown the bum’s rush,″ Senecal said. ″Some of these guys get right up in your face if you refuse.″

O’Brien said the ordinance won’t solve the problem.

″Winos are going to take their government check, spend $25 on a license and then panhandle freely,″ he said. ″But the guy who has been living in Washington, D.C., and is moving back to Ohio, and runs out of gas, and needs to panhandle to get enough money to get home is the guy who is going to get arrested.″

Senecal said the ordinance isn’t aimed at the working poor. He said the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers and other charities also would be exempt.

″What I’m after are the winos who make a good living off government checks and beg for money the final two weeks of every month after they blow all their government money,″ Senecal said.

One supporter of the measure is the Rev. Bill Crowe, who operates Union Rescue Mission in Martinsburg, a growing town of more than 13,000 just over an hour’s drive from Washington.

The town has a 2 percent jobless rate, but its homeless shelter usually is full and 39 of the 52 beds at the mission were occupied on a recent night, Crowe said.

″There’s no reason for anyone in Martinsburg to bum money or meals or anything else,″ Crowe said. ″We serve meals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These people are just living off the bottle. They just drink and drink and drink and then start panhandling to get more money.″

Senecal said he doesn’t know if his plan would work in big cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and New York.

″The biggest difference between us and New York City is we know all our bums,″ he said.

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