Debate continues to simmer between the City and County commissions over how best to tackle homelessness, but members of both boards say they remain determined to find solutions
The Sarasota City Commission this week directed staff to conduct further research into the potential implementation of a countywide mental health tax district to help pay for solutions to the community’s homelessness problems.
City Manager Tom Barwin will gather information from Hardee County, because, thus far, it is the only county in the state to establish such a tax district, city and county staff members have reported.
The Feb. 16 City Commission action was just one facet of focus it and the Sarasota County Commission put on homelessness again this week, as the local government bodies work toward the best approaches to solving the community’s problems. As evidenced by comments at both boards’ meetings, though, it is clear disunity remains the rule.
The City Commission initiative followed a Feb. 2 Sarasota Downtown Improvement District meeting, during which that advisory board voted its support of a mental health and indigent care taxing district. City leaders subsequently have emphasized a November ballot question, while the county commissioners have held firm on the decision they made during their December 2015 retreat: They do want to add any other tax measure to the November ballot, when they will ask county voters to approve a $190-million referendum to pay for major construction projects, including a Public Safety Campus on Cattlemen Road.
During their regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16, the city commissioners grappled with next steps following a double setback in their efforts to address homelessness: the departure of Director of Homelessness Initiatives Doug Logan and accusations from two county commissioners that City Manager Tom Barwin crafted an inaccurate press release following the Feb. 2 DID meeting. (See the related article in this issue.)
In a routine report to the city commissioners, Eileen Hampshire, chair of the DID board, discussed the Feb. 2 meeting. She explained that her board approved two motions supporting collaboration between the city and county to try to establish potential funding streams — including the mental health and indigent care tax district — that would enable the community to better tackle the issue of homelessness.
During the Feb. 2 session, part of the discussion focused on a preliminary projection that a 0.25-mill levy could raise $11 million annually.
“We may have acted in haste, but we acted with a very good heart,” Hampshire said. “We wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Hampshire added. “We just wanted to help.”
Last week, County Commission Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo and Commissioner Christine Robinson accused Barwin of purposefully crafting a press release to make it appear as though Caragiulo supports a November referendum on a countywide mental healthcare special taxing district. In fact, Caragiulo made plain at his board’s Feb. 9 meeting, he does not.
Barwin, however, said during the Feb. 16 City Commission session that his intention in sending out the release was to inform residents of a possible means of helping solve what he has called one of the region’s “most vexing problems.”
Residents want the city to work on homelessness, Barwin told the commissioners. “I continue to sense from our community that there is some sense of urgency,” he added.
A third of the homeless people who receive services suffer from some type of mental health issue, he pointed out. “We’ve been talking about this issue at this table for two years.”
He added, “Many people were not aware this [district as a] tool was already a part of the law.”
Barwin said he believes the collaborative spirit and discussion about funding sources evidenced at the Feb. 2 DID meeting was a breakthrough.
“You can only solve big issues by sourcing them,” Barwin told the city board. “You can’t wish them away. It was an important discussion, and big news. And I still think it was big news.”
“I applaud you for at least showing some leadership that we need funding sources for this problem,” said City Commissioner Susan Chapman. “We have to consider all options because this is a difficult problem.”
“We can’t stop trying,” Hampshire added.
At one point, John Moran, the DID operations manager, told the commissioners he had spoken with Caragiulo on the phone while the City Commission meeting was under way. “He asked me to relay one thing,” Moan said, adding that Caragiulo wanted people to understand he is not in favor of placing the tax district question before voters on Election Day in November.
(Caragiulo has said he will make another presentation to the DID board regarding some of the parameters of a mental health district.)
During the discussion, Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell voiced her support for the establishment of a community shelter. “Part of the Barwin eight-point [plan for addressing homelessness] is some sort of triage shelter,” Atwell said. “People know I want a shelter.”
The first mention of homelessness in the Feb. 16 city session had come when County Commissioner Carolyn Mason addressed the board as a private citizen.“ Consider working again on a shelter, another place to get people off the streets,” she told the city board. “Then [homeless individuals] can begin to be channeled into programs.”
Perhaps there is a chance for the DID talks to “re-energize the discussion on the shelter,” Atwell said later that evening, after Mason had made her remarks.
Noting recent setbacks to the city’s efforts, Mayor Willie Shaw questioned the timing of Mason’s comments. He noted that the county’s and city’s staffs are still working together on solutions to homelessness.
What about Hardee County?
Atwell and City Commissioner Shellie Freeland Eddie both expressed the desire to learn more information from Hardee County about its special tax district.
“I’d like to hear what Hardee has done,” Freeland Eddie said, “and how they have done it. Maybe they can provide some insight on how long the process takes, what the funding stream looks like, how we educate our community and things we can be doing in advance to maybe get to a timeframe where this can be appropriately brought before the community.”
“We need to really look at this,” Atwell added. “We are processing this. I really want to know how it is working for [Hardee County]?”
The tax district can be put on the ballot only if the County Commission agrees to do so or if voters collect enough signatures through a petition initiative to put the question on the ballot, Barwin told the commissioners.
So the city does not have any mechanism to proceed on its own? Commissioner Liz Alpert asked.
That is correct, Barwin replied.
In Hardee County, 1 mil is collected, and the mental health district raises $44 million a year, Moran noted.
Hardee County uses the district funds primarily for indigent healthcare reimbursement, Barwin pointed out. He has exchanged emails with the Hardee County administrator, he added, and he plans to get an outline about the program.
Mayor Shaw said that if a majority of the city board supported the effort to get the measure on the November ballot, the matter could go before the County Commission.
“I’m supportive of it,” Chapman said. “Maybe we should start to form a committee or an effort to try to get some cooperation.”
Atwell told her colleagues she is hesitant about moving forward until she learns more about the tax district.
Could the funding measure pay for housing, such as Housing First, she asked. “I want to know what the district does,” Atwell said. “And I want to know the real cost of it. We are throwing some of these numbers out, and I am baffled by some of them.”
County ‘not disengaged’
Meanwhile, the county commissioners vowed during their Feb. 17 meeting to keep their focus on homelessness.
When he speaks to the public, County Commissioner Charles Hines said, it is clear to him that people remain concerned about the need to find solutions to the area’s problems. “This board’s not disengaged from this issue,” he added. “[Homelessness is] hurting Sarasota County. It’s hurting the people that are living on the streets.”
The board members also affirmed their commitment to establishing a come-as-you-are shelter. County Administrator Tom Harmer told the commissioners that a report the board requested on staff recommendations regarding next steps should be delivered to them on March 21. The commission last month asked that a discussion of the report’s contents be scheduled after they receive the report. However, county spokesman Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader on Feb. 18 that no date has been set. He did note that the board has a regular meeting scheduled for March 22.
“We need a variety of tools in this toolbox to address this issue, and the big tool that we’re missing is the come-as-you-are shelter,” Mason said during the Feb. 17 session. “I have every confidence that we will be able to get that sited and open.”