Panama City Commissioners make positive changes by approving nuisance ordinance

PANAMA CITY— The City Commission approved a controversial ordinance Tuesday that allows heavy law enforcement presence to be considered as a factor in declaring a property a chronic nuisance.

It was drafted in an effort to reduce problems associated with homelessness, but some raised concerns that it could have wider reaching effects that would penalize landlords, be used discriminatorily and even make the homelessness problem worse.

The ordinance was passed on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Mike Nichols voting no.

Commissioner John Kady, who helped draft the ordinance, said it will compel the organizations that do not want to work with the city to address problems on their properties to do so through an abatement process. He has described it as a matter of responsibility.

Though the ordinance is technically in effect, Panama City Police Chief John Van Etten said he does not plan to enforce the ordinance until he receives direction from City Attorney Rowlett Bryant about how it should be implemented.

Van Etten, who was involved in discussions about the ordinance but not in the drafting of the final ordinance, said the law is vague in some regards and it wasn’t clear how it should be enforced. Bryant said he would try to have a letter for the Police Department sometime this week.

The decision to approve the ordinance before Bryant drafted the letter was criticized by the Rev. Billy Fox, executive director of the Panama City Rescue Mission. He said he thought the ordinance should have been tabled until enforcement was clear.

It wasn’t the only concern he had.

Representatives of the Panama City Rescue Mission said the ordinance could exacerbate the downtown homelessness problem.

Fox said there is a “very strong possibility” the mission will open its Day Center only to those involved in mission programs and close it to all others.

“Our board has already resolved that that could very well be one of the answers to protecting our organization,” Fox said. Notice how Mr. Fox’s priority seems to be to “protect his organization” instead of being an organiziation that provides services while being a positive entity to its surrounding neighbors.

Henry Hazzard, president of the mission’s board of directors, said most of the calls to law enforcement made at the mission are related to the DayCenter, which was opened in July 2005 to address problems associated with homeless men and women loitering. It is open to everyone during the day to give them a place to go to get off the streets, he said.

“This Day Center has come back to bite us,” Hazzard said.

Fox said closing the day center could put 30-50 people back on the streets during the day, which will make it look like the number of homeless people in the city increased. They are already “on the street”. They just use the rescue mission like their personal country club to grab a meal and then back out around town. More silly nonsense from Mr. Fox. He wants to frighten people into thinking that his facility is the only solution. The reality is that Fox isnt going to cut a program. When has he EVER cut a program? He NEEDS to have larger and larger numbers to justify his budgets. CUTTING a program, having lesser numbers of people that have now become dependent on the services of the mission is never going to happen unless an outside force like a powerful new ordinance pressures him to scale back.

It’s not the only concern Fox has with the ordinance.

He said he is worried the ordinance will make people think twice about calling police during an emergency. Actually the new ordinance will have the OPPOSITE effect. It will ENCOURAGE  citizens to call the police. In the past a telephone call would only bring an officer to address the one single incident. Many people would not bother to call because calling never seemed to solve the problem. Now, when a call is placed it allows that call to become a statistic, one that has real meaning. Through ongoing input from the community the ordinance now gives local government leverage to address the root core of a problem.

“Somebody’s life is going to be in danger,” he said. MORE threats to the community. If someone’s life is in danger as Mr. Fox professes, then the whole facility should be shut down TODAY

Mayor Greg Brudnicki said one possible solution would be for organizations that rely heavily on the police to hire security.

“There has to be a certain amount of security you provide in your business,” he said.

The chronic nuisance ordinance states that owners or occupants of property where goods or services are provided and properties where owners or occupants permit legal activates would be classified as a chronic nuisance if law enforcement is called to the premises five or more times within a 30-day period.

It would not penalize property owners who report a nuisance created by a third-party to law enforcement, as long as the owner is not a participant.

After hearing from several property owners, commissioners cut a section of the ordinance that allowed a chronic nuisance to be declared based on circumstances that are “annoying to neighbors, the neighborhood and the community, that is injurious to the health of citizens in general or that corrupts public morals.”

Those in violation of the ordinance will go through the city’s current nuisance abatement process, which will include an appearance in front of a magistrate and the creation of an abatement plan.

Commissioners also held first reading of an ordinance that prohibits panhandling and regulates behavior on public property. It will return to the commission at a later meeting for a final vote. A complete story on the ordinance will be in Thursday’s edition of The News Herald.

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Springfield examines panhandling ordinance

SPRINGFIELD — City officials hope to pass an ordinance that prohibits panhandling in Springfield city limits before the practice becomes a problem.

Commissioners directed the city attorney to draft the ordinance during a workshop meeting Monday, about five hours before a public hearing on the potential expansion of the Panama City Rescue Mission’s Bethel Village program.

No one specifically mentioned Bethel Village, but residents and commissioners in the past have said they are concerned the program could lead to issues in the city similar to what is happening in Panama City.

Commissioner Phillip Dykes, whose house is directly across the street from Bethel Village, distributed several ordinances already in place in other Florida cities and asked that a similar law be enacted in Springfield.

“We need to get something on the table and in the books before it bites us in the back end,” he said.

Dykes said he doesn’t want to base the ordinance off the one under consideration in Panama City because it hasn’t been “court-tested.”

After the meeting, he said he hasn’t noticed a problem with panhandling, but he wants to be prepared.

“If we do it upfront and do it right, we won’t have a problem,” Dykes said.

City managers in Lynn Haven and Callaway said neither city has plans to work on a panhandling ordinance.

Lynn Haven City Manager John Lynch said no one on the commission has mentioned it, and unless and until it becomes a problem, “I don’t anticipate anyone bringing it up.”

In Callaway, an existing ordinance prohibits solicitation on city streets and medians. City Manger Judy Whitis said she isn’t aware of any problems in the city and nothing regarding panhandling is in the works.

A consultant hired by Panama City to discuss the city’s homelessness problems said if the city cracks down on behaviors like panhandling, it could cause the problem to move from city limits and into a neighboring municipality.

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City of Springfield takes actions to stop Bethel Village facility


The Springfield City Commission on Monday night unanimously denied a development order for the expansion of the Panama City Rescue Mission’s Bethel Village program for women — again.

This time, however, commissioners believe their decision will stand up in court.

And, there’s a good chance it will be tested again. After the public hearing, the Rev. Billy Fox, executive director of the Rescue Mission, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. He won’t know until after a board of directors meeting today, but it’s likely the decision will be appealed again, he said.

The Rescue Mission filed for a development order to expand its existing facility on Transmitter Road. It currently includes one residential unit that can house up to 21 participants in the Mission’s women’s recovery program and one live-in supervisor.

The development order called for one large residential structure that could accommodate 28 people and four cottages that could house eight to 10 people. With the expansion in accommodations, the site also would provide additional services.

The downtown Panama City location would be changed to an all-male facility, and females and their children up to age 12 would receive services in Springfield.

This is the second time the Springfield City Commission has denied the development order after a public hearing. In 2010, the city denied the development order, and the Rescue Mission appealed the decision. In February 2011, Circuit Court Judge Michael Overstreet remanded the application back to the city for another public hearing or the issuance of the development order because, he wrote, the commission “failed to provide any factual basis for their decision.”

Commissioners believe they have it this time.

Among the differences this time around was testimony from Police Chief Phillip Thorne, who said he believes there will be an increased strain on police officers and firefighters if the facility expands. He said the increase in residents and a change in why they are at the facility likely would result in increased calls for service from the police and fire departments. The city’s fire department responds to all emergency medical calls.

Thorne said Overstreet’s ruling “talked about citizen conjecture or speculation about future events not being substantive or credible. Respectfully, I submit to you that as a law enforcement professional, I am not merely speculating on potential problems; I am using deductive reasoning and reaching logical conclusions through a standard practice of law enforcement taking events, trends, problems, etc. at one location and (utilizing) that information for operational, budgeting and personnel planning. It is standard practice for us to have to plan that if an entity that is problematic in one location chooses to expand to another location, that the same problems will likely occur. It is not mere speculation, but it is data that creates the basis for crime analysis.”

He presented information about the number of calls for service at the Bethel Village since it opened in 2004 — 22 calls for service, most of them medical related. In addition, he said there were 30 calls in the surrounding neighborhood for issues like drug use, auto burglaries and fires, though those calls are not necessarily linked to Bethel Village.

By comparison, he said there were more than 7,500 calls in a year to the Panama City Rescue Mission and the surrounding area. If the Springfield location saw an increase of 5 percent of that amount, Thorne said it would result in 375 additional calls for service in the city and a need for additional police staff.

Fox said during the public hearing the police chief’s testimony was “not completely factual, based on speculation,” though he didn’t specifically address any issues with what Thorne said.

Commissioners also heard from Zana Ireland, who owns a business next door to Bethel Village.
She was one of about six residents who spoke during the public hearing. She gave a presentation that covered a wide range of information, including a comparison of the Springfield and Panama City locations. The expansion would mean they could both accommodate roughly the same number of people, she said.

City attorney Kevin Obos said he feels like the city has a more solid foundation to base its decision this time around because of testimony from Thorne and Ireland.

“Tonight was more about looking at some statistics and data … not just saying I don’t want it next door,” he said.

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Crackdown on nuisance properties advances

PANAMA CITY — When Steve Robinson learned a tenant was selling drugs from one of his rental properties, he called the police five times in the course of a week.

He said he’s concerned a proposed ordinance to crack down on chronic nuisances could hurt him if a similar situation arises. The ordinance would declare a property a chronic nuisance if the police respond five or more times in a 30-day period.

“I’m concerned about infringement on property rights and the potential abuses,” he told the Panama City City Commission during a meeting Tuesday. Commissioners held first reading of the ordinance but did not take a vote. It likely will come before the commission for a vote during the March 27 meeting.

The ordinance also would allow a chronic nuisance to be declared for “the existence of circumstances upon properties … that is annoying to neighbors, the neighborhood and the community that is injurious to the health of citizens in general or that corrupts public morals.”

It refers to the city’s existing nuisance ordinance for abatement, which includes a notice, appearance before a special magistrate and the potential for a fine. If the property owner does not comply, the city would have authority to “vacate, demolish, or remove or otherwise abate” the nuisance.

Robinson said he regularly reports criminal activity to police and he thinks the ordinance isn’t needed because there are other forms of recourse through business licensing.

Commissioner John Kady said it’s the type of problems Robinson talked about that show why the ordinance is needed.

“Part of living in a city is being responsible, and 99.99 percent are,” he said. A small portion of people are using a large portion of city resources, he said, and the ordinance is intended to address that.

“It lowers property values, it’s using a huge portion of our police budget, and it’s something we need to address,” he said.

In Robinson’s case, Kady said he couldn’t imagine the police using the nuisance ordinance against a property owner who is cooperating to solve the source of the problem.

City attorney Rowlett Bryant said the purpose of the ordinance is to clean up neighborhoods.

“We’re not going to tolerate behavior that’s detrimental to the city, to the neighborhoods and to the neighbors,” he said.

The ordinance stems from concerns about the impact on downtown of places where homeless people congregate, such as the Panama City Rescue Mission and nearby Grocery Outlet.

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P.C. to take up nuisance ordinance

PANAMA CITY — The Panama City Commission is set to consider cracking down on owners of properties where law enforcement officers are routinely dispatched.

If approved, the ordinance would declare a chronic nuisance if the city’s law enforcement officers are required to respond to a location five or more times over a 30-day period. It also would allow a chronic nuisance to be declared for “the existence of circumstances upon properties … that is annoying to neighbors, the neighborhood and the community that is injurious to the health of citizens in general or that corrupts public morals.”

Commissioner John Kady requested the ordinance be added to the agenda for Tuesday’s 5 p.m. City Commission meeting after the agenda was created. It is expected to be included in an addendum distributed Monday. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

The ordinance refers to the city’s existing regulations on nuisances for abatement. When a notice is given, property owners or those who are leasing the property will be given a time frame to comply.

The ordinance states “upon the owner’s failure to comply with the notice, the city may vacate, demolish, or remove or otherwise abate the nuisance in accordance with the order stated in the notice.” The cost would be recouped from the property owner through a lien on the property.

The existing nuisance code includes primarily issues like trash, weeds, smells and pollution, but it does classify as a nuisance locations “where any activity which is in violation of local, state or federal law is conducted, performed or maintained.”

The ordinance is based on the “broken windows” theory that crime will go down if urban environments are monitored and maintained.

This new ordinance gives the city legal leverage to shut down the rescue mission. The rescue mission has exceeded these defined levels every month for the past three years.

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