City Commission votes 4-1 to approve joint meeting with the County Commission on homelessness

The Nov. 6 session at the County Administration Center will start at 9 a.m. and tentatively end at noon

City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

With Commissioner Susan Chapman casting the only “No” vote on Oct. 19, the Sarasota City Commission approved a resolution setting Nov. 6 as the date of its joint meeting with the Sarasota County Commission to discuss chronic homelessness in the community.

The session will begin at 9 a.m. in the County Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. City Manager Tom Barwin said county staff anticipates it to last until approximately noon.

The resolution was necessary according to the Florida Statutes regarding joint meetings of the two boards, including the need to advertise the sessions, City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini explained to the city commissioners.

“I perceive that we’re going to have indigestion and high blood pressure,” Chapman told her colleagues, noting that county staff had sent the city commissioners and staff a recent update from the nationally known homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, whom both boards hired in 2013 to assist with the county’s problems.

In that Oct. 6 email, Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery provided Marbut’s assessment of Housing First initiatives in several U.S. cities. For example, he noted that through the use of federal funds, Salt Lake City created such a program and housed about 1,250 individuals. “In reality, after spending millions and millions of dollars,” Marbut continued, “the street level homeless rate in [Salt Lake City’s] downtown has gone up about 25-30% (according to observational data and the actual officers on the beat).

Chapman has been among the strongest advocates for a Housing First approach to homelessness in Sarasota County, whereas Marbut has recommended the construction of a come-as-you-are shelter.

Barwin told the city commissioners on Oct. 19 that figures he had obtained show it would cost “in the neighborhood of $7 million” to build a 250-bed shelter, and the annual operating expense would be between $1.2 million and $1.5 million. The city’s goal is “to get about 100 units of housing in play as soon as possible,” he added, at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

Barwin also pointed out that the latest county numbers he had regarding rescue unit calls to take homeless people to hospital emergency rooms showed 60 percent of those served were in the city. “That fact is a surprise to some people,” he added.

During the Oct. 13 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Christine Robinson referenced data showing 80 percent of the homeless are in the city of Sarasota.

Meeting details

Homeless people camp on Central Avenue in June 2014. File photo
Homeless people camp on Central Avenue in June 2014. File photo

When Chapman asked during her board’s regular meeting Monday evening whether Barwin had made any progress in persuading county leaders to include representatives from the other municipalities in the Nov. 6 session, Barwin replied, “At this point, no. The other cities are being notified and invited to come and listen, but they will not be at the dais or part of that meeting at this point.”

During the County Commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 13, County Administrator Tom Harmer told the county commissioners the City Commission had asked that the other municipal boards be included.

“Well, we expressly said the City of Sarasota,” Chair Carolyn Mason replied.

“Everyone’s welcome to the meeting, correct?” asked Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who served on the city board before his election to his county seat in November 2014.

“That’s right,” Mason told him. “They’re welcome … but we want dialogue with the City of Sarasota on this issue, is the way I understand it.”
“I’m perplexed,” County Commissioner Robinson said. “We don’t have any conversation with each other for a long time, and … these other cities have endorsed the Marbut plan.” (The last joint meeting the City and County commissions held was in June 2014.)

Robinson added that county staff provides all the municipalities in Sarasota County with the monthly reports the County Commission receives about homelessness initiatives. Further, she said, “I’ve talked to a few of the South County municipalities and they’d be happy to join us [in working toward the opening of a shelter]. I don’t think the City of Sarasota would be happy with what they have to say.”

Mayor Willie Shaw told his colleagues Monday night that he has talked with representatives of the other cities in the county, and “many are on board” to engage in discussions about how the community best can help its homeless population.

As for the agenda: Barwin said the latest information he had from the county calls for up to 15 minutes for an update on the county’s efforts to help the homeless, followed by up to 15 minutes for a city presentation on its initiatives regarding housing. “And then … the 10 elected officials [will be] discussing this issue of chronic homelessness and putting their thoughts and strategies on the table to explore a collaboration.”

“Very good,” Shaw responded.

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie made the motion to approve the resolution. Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell seconded it.

Then Shaw asked, “What do we see coming out of this [meeting]?”

Consultant Robert Marbut addresses the city and county commissioners in November 2013. File photo
Consultant Robert Marbut addresses the city and county commissioners in November 2013. File photo

Barwin said he thought the discussion would “lead to hopefully the county giving an overview of current thinking [on] its priority” — sheltering and jail diversion.

Barwin added that he hopes the discussion also will focus on funding mental health services for the homeless. Recent statistics show Florida is ranked 49th out of the 50 states in providing revenue for such assistance, he pointed out.

He further hopes, he continued, that the two boards will be able to discuss a proposal to amend state law to allow voters to decide whether to raise the county’s liquor tax to help fund mental health programs.

While City Commissioner Liz Alpert said Chapman could be correct in her characterization of the city board members becoming frustrated during the meeting, “I think that we have to have the discussion. … I just don’t see any other way to bridge this gap and start working together.”

Vice Mayor Atwell concurred with Alpert. “I’m going into this meeting pretty positively. I want to get some solutions out of this.”

Referencing a special city meeting on Oct. 27 to discuss means of helping the chronic homeless, Eddie said she wanted to see the city board members and staff develop “something substantive to present” to the County Commission, including details about the financial commitments it can make.

When Shaw called for the vote on the resolution, it passed 4-1.