City Council committee recommends forming panhandling task force

  • JERREY ROBERTSNorthampton City Hall

@amandadrane
Published: 1/23/2017 10:39:32 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A task force to look at the perennial issue of panhandling, and what the city can do to alleviate concerns around it, is one of the proposals to arise out of last year’s community forums on the city’s economy.

The task force is among the recommendations put forward by the City Council’s Committee on Community Resources in a report that fulfills a committee study request issued by the full council in March.

Ward 4 City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who chairs the committee, will present the report during a City Council meeting on Feb. 2.

Other recommendations include a one-time forum on downtown arts, a public education endeavor regarding the state of the city’s economy and a push for long-awaited commuter rail service.

The recommendations come following a series of four public forums held by the committee last spring and summer, during which councilors heard testimony on a range of issues related to the economy.

“These were the things people most wanted to talk about,” Sciarra said.

At the discretion of the mayor, the task force would be made up of city staffers — such as Police Chief Jody Kasper and Community Development Director Peg Keller, Sciarra said — representatives from social service, housing and advocacy organizations, as well as downtown business owners. Per the recommendation, it would “explore non-ordinance and non-punitive ways of addressing the needs of downtown at-risk populations.”

While several business and property owners called on councilors to pass regulations that could address downtown panhandling, Sciarra said she has researched the issue heavily and has not found a way to accomplish that without infringing on the constitutional rights of some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Still, she said, there may be something to be done to alleviate concerns.

“This is an issue that is talked about perennially and it would be good if we could get all the key players to talk about what we can do,” she said.

“We were focused more on the needs of the individuals and how to better channel resources to them, and figure out if there’s work that can be done that will be compassionate and helpful.”

Joseph Blumenthal, owner of Downtown Sounds, was among the business owners who spoke to the dilemma in city forums. He said he’s skeptical such a body would accomplish anything.

“I’m not real optimistic about it — this is a problem that we’ve been struggling with for as long as I’ve been in business,” he said, adding that that amounts to about 40 years.

“It sounds to me like it’s just going to be a lot of people wringing their hands about what a problem this is. I’m afraid we’re just going to keep talking in circles.”

Still, Blumenthal said, he might consider serving on such a body if approached.

Other issues

About two dozen people spoke during the forums about how the city’s arts community would like more support from City Hall. People who gave testimony wanted to explore pop-up venues, hosting festivals and other events in public spaces.

To explore this further, Sciarra said, the committee is proposing a one-time forum “where we talk about how the city and these organizations can work together in a way that’s cohesive and helps promote all the amazing things that are happening arts-wise in the city.”

The report also includes a recommendation that the mayor pass an executive order addressing wage issues in the city — something he said he intends to do in the coming weeks.

Another issue that arose frequently in the forums was concern over the city’s economy. The issue of high rents and vacant properties is something Sciarra said the council is unfortunately unable to tackle with legislation.

“But I think what our recommendation reflects is that where we can be most effective is looking at the data that we have,” she said, adding that the committee recommends compiling the city’s economic indicators into a series of proposed opinion pieces.

“You get very focused when you start to see paper going up on windows, but when you kind of step back and look at the longer cycle, most of those businesses get filled again.

“If we can spend some time talking about that and the other trends that people get concerned about,” she said, “that might be where we can be most effective.”

Mayor David Narkewicz said he is currently looking over the recommendations.

“I received a copy of the Committee on Community Resources report and am reviewing its recommendations carefully prior to the report’s formal presentation to the City Council on Feb. 2,” he said. “I commend Councilor Sciarra and the other members of her committee for their work studying these important issues affecting our city.”

Sciarra said it was a big undertaking to hear so much testimony on such a range of topics, and she feels good about what the committee was able to put together.

“I knew going into it, it was going to be a significant process, and to do it well — to make sure that everyone who wanted to say something was heard — it was going to take a while,” she said. “I’m comfortable with what we did and I feel we did a pretty comprehensive job of it — people had ample opportunity to come and voice their opinions. I thank everyone for coming out and being active and involved.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.




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