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Walnut Creek looks to city staff for help with increased panhandling

Thursday, September 16, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Some 30 residents of the Walnut Creek community convened at City Hall last week to voice their frustrations about rising crime rates in north Austin and, hopefully, find a way to bring those rates down.


The members of the neighborhood, led by longtime Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association President Wayne Tobias, met with Bobby Garza, chief of staff for Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, and Jason Alexander, aide to Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald.


Walnut Creek is bounded by Lamar on the west, I-35 on the east, Braker Lane on the south, and Walnut Creek on the north.


Tobias told In Fact Daily that his group is concerned primarily with what they see as a precipitous rise in panhandling in the area, particularly at the corner of I-35 and Braker Lane. “Over the last 18 months,” he said, “residents have noticed an increase in panhandling at I-35 and Braker, and with that has come an increase in crime in the general area: Break-ins of homes, personal attacks, prostitution, and drug sales.”

According to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo’s monthly crime report, burglary and auto theft are up, respectively, 31.5 and 24.5 percent over last year in the north-central portion of the city. By comparison, burglary is down two percent and auto theft is up 3.7 percent city-wide.


Tobias believes the problem can be attributed to two major causes: the current economic slump and city efforts to clean up the intersection at Rundberg and I-35, approximately two miles south. Panhandlers from the Rundberg area have made their way north, Tobias said.


“New panhandlers are driving out the old,” he said. “It’s actually getting kind of aggressive up here. It’s a dog-eat-dog type of situation.”


In response to these concerns, Tobias said, the neighborhood association decided to sit down with officials to “let the city know we’re up here and we feel like we’re being ignored.”


“We’re trying to see if we can get more of a police presence up here or something,” Tobias said. “We’re open to any suggestions. The neighborhood is willing to work with the city, but we need the city to work with us, too. Crime is going to move, and we’re the next intersection up.”


Since Tuesday’s meeting was preliminary, both Tobias and Alexander said that no conclusions were reached. Instead, they agreed to meet at an unspecified date to discuss options after the Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association has solicited questions from residents.


“We asked them to prepare questions for the follow-up meeting that we can go back and research and hopefully come back with some answers for them,” Alexander told In Fact Daily. “It’s a little premature to say what we’ll do. Once we have a better understanding of what their real concerns are, we’ll be happy to work with police to help address them.


According to Tobias, all options should be on the table, including changing the city’s panhandling laws.


Under current city code, panhandling is allowed provided it is not done in an “aggressive manner.” However, in the Downtown Business Area all panhandling is prohibited between 7pm and 7am.


“If the Central Business Area can say no panhandling, why aren’t we, the Austin neighborhoods, included in those restrictions?” he said. “In Williamson County, they don’t allow panhandling, but Austin for some reason is literally catering to the panhandlers.” He said the city should consider the possibility of extending the Central Business Area panhandling restrictions to the entire city.


“If the city’s afraid of the ACLU – which is what their concern seems to boil down to – then let’s let the neighborhoods opt in or opt out of letting panhandling in their neighborhoods, and then it’s the neighborhoods the ACLU would have to go against,” he said.


The Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association will probably meet next at the beginning of October, Tobias said, when they will solicit questions from residents and possibly bring in a member of the Austin Police Department or a city attorney to address logistical or legal issues.

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