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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

'Fill the Boot' firefighters try to work around city panhandling ordinance

Although a change in the county panhandling ordinances may allow nonprofit groups to collect money on roads, officials said there were no plans to change city ordinances.

The county decision was in response to Alachua County Fire Rescue, which has been affected in its participation in Fill the Boot. Fill the Boot is a national campaign that collects donations off the street for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

But even if the language is changed in the county ordinance, firefighters will not be able to fill their boots in Gainesville.

"Our prohibition is content-neutral," said City Attorney Marion Radson. "It applies to everyone."

He said there are no plans to change the city ordinances.

ACFR planned to collect for Fill-the-Boot during three football game weekends this year but cut its plans short when the ordinance passed, firefighter Chad Smith said. He said he hopes ACFR will be able to collect again by the football game Nov. 17.

County Attorney David Wagner will meet with a First Amendment specialist to discuss the constitutionality of a law that does not to apply to nonprofits, said Mark Sexton, county communications coordinator.

The law will only change if attorneys can come up with wording that will stand up in court if someone decides to sue, Sexton said.

Firefighter Brad Paquette, who is in charge of Gainesville Fire Rescue's Fill the Boot drive, has had experience working around the ordinance.

This year, instead of approaching cars, firefighters have been setting up at grocery stores.

Although GFR raised ,17,000 for the MDA last year, Paquette is hoping for ,10,000 this year.

"Anything over that would be really exciting," he said.

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Paquette said he hopes that the Iris Roberts Act, a state law that allows nonprofits to gather money on the street, will override the ordinances.

"I'm looking forward to next year hopefully being able to do the actual boot drive on the street," he said.

But City Commissioner Craig Lowe said the state law overruling the county and the city is unlikely because it would have to deal with the same issues of freedom of speech.

"The danger there is we would have to do away with the panhandling ordinance," he said. "Then we would go back to where we were before, the situation where we had someone on every street corner going into traffic to collect money."

The ordinance is for public safety, Lowe said. It was dangerous to have panhandlers standing on the median, and there are safety concerns for firefighters, he said.

"I think we do have a safer environment now than we did before," he said.

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