The city of Bettendorf, the only community in the Quad-Cities that licenses panhandlers to solicit funds from motorists, is debating an ordinance change that would keep them away from roadways.
During a presentation Monday night at the city council’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, Bettendorf Police Sgt. Mike Piazza cited numerous reasons for the proposed ordinance change, primarily growing public safety concerns.
“Many are stepping into traffic, and we’re concerned for everyone’s safety,” Piazza said. “It’s a distraction on the side of the road as people are driving.”
The ordinance change, which would prohibit panhandling at or within 100 feet of a controlled-access highway or intersection, roadway shoulder or median strip, is modeled after an ordinance change being considered in Cedar Rapids.
In total, Bettendorf has 40 active panhandlers. While the city grants licenses for free, panhandlers must renew their license every six months. Two panhandlers new to Bettendorf applied for, and received licenses on Monday, Piazza added.
Under the current ordinance, panhandlers cannot walk into the roadway to receive offered donations, cannot block traffic and cannot panhandle on or near Interstate 74 exit ramps during rush hour from 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.
A violation results in a six-month ban from a specific location.
Bettendorf does not have the authority to enforce the ordinance on private property. If the city adopts the proposed change, police would have the ability to enforce the ordinance on private property if the property owner directs them to.
City Attorney Kristine Stone said she feels comfortable backing the ordinance change because of evidence of motor vehicle accidents caused by panhandling.
As Bettendorf continues to grant more licenses, Piazza said he has seen an increase in territorial competition between panhandlers, not to mention a rise in arrests.
According to the presentation, Bettendorf police have made 14 arrests between 2011 and 2015 at the city’s panhandling hot spots along the I-74 corridor exits at State Street, Middle Road and Spruce Hills Drive.
While many of Bettendorf’s panhandlers have access to vehicles and homes, even though their signs may say they’re homeless, Piazza said he doesn’t think he has “found a panhandler that lives in Bettendorf yet, other than one of our downtown hotels.”
On top of that, Piazza added that many panhandlers have criminal histories.
“Some own their own vehicles and park nearby, and many are not homeless and treat panhandling as a job, a tax-free cash job.”
Alderman Gary Mohr, at large, said if the ordinance change does not solve the many issues, he would like the city council to eventually consider prohibiting panhandlers from soliciting motorists all together.
“I don’t notice problems in other communities in the Quad-Cities like I notice in Bettendorf and it seems to me that’s the primary target they’re soliciting,” Mohr said.
Alderman Dean Mayne, 1st Ward, also inquired about strengthening the ordinance change.
“I’m glad we can get them some assistance if they’re truly homeless and in need, but some of these people are dressed nicer than we are,” Mayne said. “If they’re truly in need, then we want to get them some help.”
Piazza said he thinks the proposed ordinance change eventually would decrease the total number of panhandlers in Bettendorf.
“You wouldn’t have the captive audience that stoplights and big intersections produce,” said Piazza, who suggested that Quad-Citians find alternative ways to donate to the needy.
“If you feel that compelled to do so, find an organization that could help them, don’t give them cash that they’ll go to the convenience store with to buy beer as soon as they’re done."