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Ask for hand-out in Wasilla, get slapped with a fine

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA --Wasilla is cracking down on panhandlers as officials say they're grappling with big-city challenges as the population nears 10,000.

Along with an anti-panhandling ordinance, Wasilla's city council also approved ordinances regulating taxi cabs and repeat calls for police on Tuesday night. Enforcing the three ordinances will rely heavily on Wasilla's 20-person police department.

"We're getting like a regular city," Mayor Verne Rupright said before the meeting.

Several council members before the unanimous vote on the panhandling ordinance mentioned rising numbers of people asking for money at public places like grocery stores, restaurants or post offices in the city.

"They are scaring some people and they're doing it for drug money," said council member Leone Harris. "I'm going to guess and say, maybe, 90 percent are doing it for drug money."

The ordinance bans anyone from soliciting money or rides or actively seeking money for music other than street performances. It doesn't, however, forbid "passively standing or sitting" or music performers who ask for donations with a sign only. A first offense nets a warning, a second a $100 fine or eight hours of community service and the third a $200 fine or 16 hours of community service.

Council member Colleen Sullivan-Leonard argued for reducing the fines to $50 and $75 given the reduced ability of most panhandlers to pay, but the council voted that down.

The council held public hearings on all three ordinances Tuesday. Only a handful of people showed up to testify. The panhandling hearing was the only one that drew divergent views -- in this case, from just two people and both of them council meeting regulars.

Water quality watchdog Garvin Bucaria described a "young man with a Technicolor Dreamcoat" -- a reference to a musical with a similar name -- who confronted him at the city post office and again at the library looking for money. Bucaria, who said he's given money to people he felt needed it, supported the intent of the ordinance but felt it was poorly worded and didn't make allowances for credible requests.

"In the case of the fella with the dreamcoat, he just looked like he was capable of doing more than touching me for a hit," Bucaria said. "The fellow that I (gave to) was an older fellow and he had an infirmity and he needed some help."

Speaking in opposition, Anne Kilkenny, an activist who gained national attention in 2008 for a viral email about Sarah Palin's time as mayor, told the council she once panhandled for $10 to pay her tuition as a student in Berkeley, California

"I'm thinking to myself, 'OK. We're going to make it illegal to be poor in Wasilla?' " Kilkenny said. She suggested the city establish a panhandling permit, an idea met with a few suppressed laughs from city staff and no action from the council.

City attorney Richard Payne said Anchorage's "very similarly worded" ordinance is under review by an Anchorage Superior Court judge. Payne said the city may need to amend its ordinance if similar sections don't withstand legal challenge.

A Palmer judge "threw us out on our ear" after the city tried to take one particularly persistent panhandler to court, Rupright noted.

Two other ordinances passed unanimously Tuesday night.

The city's new taxi cab ordinance requires each business to get a $75 per-vehicle permit, file a certificate of liability insurance and undergo annual inspections with spot checks from Wasilla police, with a requirement to report any accidents causing more than $2,000 in damage. It specifies how cabs have to look and the kind of business records companies must keep. Violators could see a $100 fine.

Four or five "rogue" operators do business in Wasilla with little oversight on driver records or insurance, said Corky Hedrick, the Alaska Cab owner who met with Rupright a few months ago to talk about her concerns. She said those drivers are cutting into the earnings of legitimate companies.

"Your good drivers can't make a living at this any more because you've got all these yahoo gypsy drivers out there slicing the pie in too many pieces," Hedrick said.

The "excessive police response" ordinance targets people who call police more than eight times to their residence or more than 50 times to a commercial unit, which includes a hotel or apartment complex. Numerous reasons for making legitimate 911 calls are exempted, such as medical emergencies or potential child neglect or domestic violence. As of Tuesday, the department didn't have a system set up to track nuisance calls -- a problem for Sullivan-Leonard --but police Chief Gene Belden promised to have one up and running by July 1, when the ordinance goes into effect.

Wasilla's officers responded to almost 3,080 calls in the last year, 148 alone from one business, Belden told the council, though he declined to identify the establishment during a break.

But the really big players on police logs -- Walmart, averaging about 800 calls a year, plus Fred Meyer and Carrs -- are exempt because the accidents and shoplifting calls there are legitimate under the ordinance, Belden said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com