County attorney warns move could result in “gray murky constitutional question.”
Loudoun supervisors on Thursday rejected a proposal to study whether nonprofit groups that meet certain qualifications could be permitted to collect donations at some county intersections while maintaining a ban for all other groups.
The issue really comes down to an annual Fill-the-Boot campaign during which firefighters collect donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Prior to 2013, when firefighters were permitted to stand at intersections to make such collections, they raised about $120,000 each year, but collections have dropped to about $20,000 annually since then.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) proposed the study.
County Attorney Leo Rogers told supervisors that the ban was based on public safety, and that any exceptions would have to be based on public safety. When asked if exception could be limited to certain days and certain intersections, Roger said, “It’s hard to say that on one day there wouldn’t be a public safety concern.”
While many supervisors said they would like to find a way to allow firefighters to conduct the collection, legally, their options are limited. Even at certain days and times, other groups would have to be permitted to solicit as well.
“If you open it up, all groups could do it,” Rogers said. “We would get into very grey murky constitutional question if we try to limit it to certain groups.”
Some neighboring counties permit all types of panhandling, including Fill-the-Boot collections, which are an initiative of the Career Firefighters Association, not the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.
Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said there are other ways supervisor could help, but that permitting collections at intersections would not be possible.
“I appreciate how important that is, but it’s not the primary mission of fire and rescue,” he said, adding that the practice can be dangerous for collectors and frustrating for drivers. Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) agreed.
“The reason the last board put this in place is I had massive numbers of complaints from constituents about the panhandling going on,” Buona said.
Letourneau and Buona said the board had agreed when the ban was approved to help the firefighters raise money if their collections dropped. They said supervisors could reach out to local businesses to find locations for collections, and then promote those collections through their communications networks.
“We need to do more to help them raise the money,” Buona said.
Only Supervisor Koran Saines (D-Sterling) supported the proposal.