Moses Lake approves fines for public daytime camping

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File photo People who camp on public property during the day will face fines beginning May 19.

MOSES LAKE — Moses Lake campers, both homeless and otherwise, will face fines for unpermitted daytime camping on public property, following a unanimous decision by the Moses Lake City Council Tuesday night.

The city originally passed an ordinance April 9 banning camping in temporary shelters such as tents, or the use of “camping paraphernalia,” which includes cots, sleeping bags and cooking facilities outside of designated barbecue pits, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The ordinance also banned sleeping in cars on public lands during the same time.

Though the ordinance proposed last month included fines for violations, the fines were removed after pushback from council member Ryann Leonard. Leonard joined the rest of the council in voting to approve Tuesday’s amendment, citing additional research on the subject. “The goal is not to fine, but to educate and have a mechanism in place, if needed, for those that refuse to abide by the ordinance,” Leonard wrote in a statement Tuesday.

With the adoption of the amendment, offenders will be fined at least $20 for the first violation, increasing to at least $40 on all subsequent violations within a twelve month period. The amended ordinance comes into effect May 19.

If homeless individuals are unable to pay fines, unpaid penalties would be turned over to a collection agency, Kenison said April 9.

In addition to limiting the visibility of homelessness in Moses Lake in high traffic areas like the Alder Street Fill, city attorney Katherine Kenison stated at the April 9 meeting that limiting the ability of transients to take root in a particular location would help lower crime rates associated with their presence.

“(The ordinance) prohibits them for a certain period of time so that you don’t get the continuous camping in one spot, which, as we have seen through experience over the last couple of years, has resulted in property damage, nuisance activity, criminal activity and other issues that have negatively impacted the city,” said city attorney Katherine Kenison during the April 9 meeting.

However, rates of property crimes have fallen significantly between 2014 and 2017, according to the Moses Lake Police Department’s most recent annual report. Burglary, malicious mischief, robbery, theft and vehicle theft have decreased in aggregate by more than 40 percent during that time period, according to the report.

Though data for property crime rates in 2018 aren’t yet available, Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said in an interview Tuesday that he expected it to hold steady, if not continue to decline.

“I can’t equate (homeless campers) with causing or creating a property crime issue,” Moses Lake Police Chief and acting City Manager Kevin Fuhr said in an interview Tuesday.

Though semi-permanent encampments have resulted in the most complaints, Fuhr said the homeless population’s effect on safety has not significantly changed.

“I think it’s appearance more than anything, especially when they’re in a high-traffic area,” Fuhr said.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Fuhr emphasized that the ordinance applied to more than homeless campers, citing instances where people may camp on public land during games or events, which officers would have been unable to fine under the unamended ordinance. Despite the previous lack of fines, most homeless people have moved out of public, open spaces in the last month, Fuhr said.

Fuhr said that he expects his department to be more likely to use the threat of fines to incentivize violators to come into compliance than to actually write a ticket.

“We write very, very, very few tickets for these types of offenses,” Fuhr said Tuesday. “I’d rather say ‘you have to move and if you don’t we’ll write you a ticket’ then say ‘we’re going to go straight to taking your sleeping bag and tent.’”

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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