County Commission rebuffs city proposal for a site swap to make space for a homeless shelter

Sheriff’s reasoning for consolidated facilities on Cattleman Road has been cited several times since 2013, and the community’s homelessness consultant has ruled out that location for a shelter

Bucko's, a Myrtle Street furniture store, is the top choice right now for a homeless shelter site. Roger Drouin photo
The Myrtle Street property that is home to Bucko’s, a furniture store, is the top choice right now for a homeless shelter site. Roger Drouin photo

The one-story, mostly windowless commercial building appears to need some minor sprucing up. The back of the property is slightly overgrown.

Adjacent to the location of Sarasota County’s first Wawa’s, the pale beige furniture store standing on 1.61 acres at the northwest corner of Butler Avenue and Myrtle Street is perceived very differently at Sarasota City Hall than it is at the Sarasota County Administration Building.

Philosophically, it might be said, the vantage points are worlds apart.

For Sarasota County staff and commissioners, the property is now the No. 1 choice for a come-as-you-are, jail-diversion shelter for the community’s homeless.

County Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo
County Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

It might not be perfect, Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Charles Hines acknowledged this week, but the site just outside the city limits has proven the best of the options brought forward out of all those reviewed in the unincorporated part of the county. City leaders have remained adamant in opposing such a facility anywhere within their borders. And the furniture store owner is willing to sell.

“We are going to get pushback,” Hines said during the Nov. 17 County Commission meeting, “but we are so limited in the choices we can make. This is the best [option].”

For City of Sarasota staff and commissioners, the Bucko’s Furniture site across from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex stands as a possible encumbrance in a rejuvenation effort focused on the heart of one of the most economically distressed districts in the city.

“I do want a shelter; I want that on the record,” City Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell told The Sarasota News Leader this week. “No facility will be perfect.” But the site at 1923 Myrtle St., and two adjacent properties also under county review as the potential site of the shelter, worry Atwell. (See the related story in this issue.) “Those choices may — not saying [they] will — compromise a very burgeoning quality of life and education improvement effort going on in that part of town,” Atwell told the News Leader.

The City and County commissions this week engaged in further exchanges of opposing viewpoints as they continued to grapple with how the community best can address the problems related to what city staff has said are 300 to 400 chronically homeless individuals in the county.

This time, the focus of discussions was the city manager’s proposal of a land swap. It was met with swift County Commission rejection.

No, thanks

Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

During the Monday, Nov. 16, Sarasota City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin called for relocating a proposed Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office training facility from a Cattlemen Road site to the property that previously was home to the Sarasota Police Department on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. Conversely, Barwin suggested shifting the homeless shelter to the site reserved for the training facility.

Barwin readily won the city commissioners’ support for his recommendation. Mayor Willie Shaw, who called the city manager’s plan a “win-win,” said it had the potential to solve two issues. First, it identified a shelter site; second, it resolved a lingering issue over the conveyance of ownership of the former Police Department property from the city to the county.

County board members have repeatedly asked the City Commission to endorse a site for a shelter.

“They’ve asked us to offer an alternative,” Shaw told the News Leader. “This is one.”

The next day, however, during a brief discussion, the county commissioners restated their resolve to move forward with a plan either to convert an existing structure into a shelter or build a new facility in north Sarasota, just outside the city limits.

The county has identified three properties all in the same general area just west of U.S. 301 and north of Myrtle Street.

Staff is moving ahead with due diligence on the sites and is working to identify funding sources for construction and annual operating costs.

During their Nov. 17 remarks, county board members often alluded to Robert Marbut, the homelessness consultant the county and city hired together in 2013. Marbut has recommended a come-as-you-are shelter in Sarasota as the focal point of the plan he unveiled almost exactly two years ago — Nov. 25, 2013 — to address homelessness in Sarasota County.

The best site still available to the county that can meet Marbut’s criteria is the Myrtle Street home of Bucko’s, Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services to the homeless, told the county commissioners on Nov. 17 during their regular meeting.

“Can you tell me if having a shelter on Cattlemen [Road] fits Dr. Marbut’s criteria?” Commissioner Christine Robinson asked Applebee.

“It was rated as ‘not viable’ for the come-as-you-are shelter,” Applebee replied, referring to the site analysis Marbut had undertaken more than two years ago.

County Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
County Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

“So [city staff members] have proposed a site we have already determined is not viable,” Robinson repeated the point.

For several years, Robinson continued, the city and county boards have been engaged in communications about a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that called for the city to convey the former Sarasota Police Department site on Ringling Boulevard to the county. The agreement, crafted by former County Administrator Jim Ley, was part of a bargain to keep county administrative offices in downtown Sarasota.

On Nov. 17, Robinson reiterated that city leaders want to put the shelter on a site that has already been “deemed non-viable,” and they “want to swap that for a piece of property they already owe us.”

In summing up the County Commission’s response to Barwin on Nov. 17, Vice Chair Al Maio said, “I think everyone on this commission answered the City of Sarasota’s thoughts on the subject.”

In an interview with the News Leader on Nov. 19, Barwin said he had hoped his concept would open the door to conversations. “None of these [elements of his proposal] were meant to offend anyone,” Barwin added, “and I think they should remain open conversations.”

Robinson pointed out on Nov. 17 that it also does not make sense to move the sheriff’s training facility to downtown Sarasota, because a significant number of deputies work in South County.

Sheriff Tom Knight has been clear about his desire for a centralized Public Safety Campus, seeing it as a means to save on expenses and maintain tighter security of his facilities. He first broached the idea to the County Commission in January 2013. During a County Commission meeting about two months later, Knight pointed out that the new Emergency Operations Center would house up to 115 Sheriff’s Office employees on the county’s Cattlemen Road property near Bahia Vista Street. “The closer I am to them, the better off we are,” he told the County Commission at that time.

The training facility would serve the sheriff’s staff and Emergency Services Department personnel, and it would replace the current facility that county officials have described as sparse, Knight and county staff explained.

When asked by the News Leader this week whether he had been contacted by City Manager Barwin prior to Barwin’s proposal of the training facility/former Sarasota Police Department site swap, Knight said, “I find [Tom Barwin] to be very nice and charming, but very inauthentic.”

While Barwin has talked about collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office in addressing chronic homelessness, Knight pointed out, no collaboration has occurred between his department and the Sarasota Police Department on anything since Barwin was hired in late 2012. The situation is the worst Knight said he has seen it since he was elected in 2008.

Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Knight added that he has offered to collaborate with the Police Department on training, and the Police Department has refused. “They don’t even use our facilities to train,” he said of Sarasota police personnel. Instead, Knight pointed out, they travel to Hillsborough County for that purpose.

Knight also pointed out that Barwin has maintained that, by opting for a Housing First approach to handling chronic homelessness, the city will save the Sheriff’s Office millions of dollars in jail expenses. However, Knight says his department will realize no cost savings at the jail as a result of the Housing First initiative.

“Now you know why I find Tom Barwin to be very inauthentic,” Knight told the News Leader.

 When asked about Knight’s comments, Barwin said in the Nov. 19 interview with the News Leader, “Anything we suggest seems to get pounced on, and I am not sure why. This is a crisis we all need to work on together.”

He added, “I think we need to turn down the rhetoric and turn up the collaboration.”

Barwin has talked with Knight on a number of occasions since Barwin became city manager, Barwin told the News Leader. Recently, Barwin added, “[Knight’s] response during my conversation with him about running a come-as-you-are shelter has been, ‘I’ll do what the City and County commissions want me to do. … So frankly we were surprised he accepted the assignment [from the county],” Barwin said, because the City Commission has been clear in its expressions of concern about plans for a shelter in north Sarasota. “[Knight’s] last representation to me was he was waiting for both commissions to ask him to [run the shelter].”

Barwin added that he remains willing to work with the sheriff on any aspect of the sheriff’s operations, including the joint training facility.

‘Inerrant’ adherence

Vice Mayor Atwell told the News Leader she watched the County Commission’s Nov. 17 discussion. “I respect the county’s decision, though I wished we could have had more conversation about particular sites and on what Tom Barwin proposed. I didn’t hear that. It was pretty perfunctory.”

Atwell added that she found Barwin’s idea to be a good one because it was what she considered an “outside-the-box” approach. “We kept hearing, ‘OK, city, come up with an alternative.’ That could have been the ultimate true collaboration.”

She continued, “Bahia Vista [Street] and Cattlemen [Road] is further out, but it is not way out by the cows,” referring to the proposed site of the Public Safety Campus on county property. “There is the [Sarasota County Area Transit] station there, and [the shelter] would have been where the sheriff could have fabulous control of it. The buffering is pretty good.”

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. Rachel Hackney photo
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. Rachel Hackney photo

Atwell uses the word “inerrant” to describe the county commissioners’ adherence to consultant Marbut’s criteria for solving the chronic homelessness problem. They are unwilling to consider a Sarasota-specific solution, Atwell said. “I felt they were looking through us [city leaders] and not at us,” Atwell added.

Late in the morning of Nov. 17, in an email to County Administrator Tom Harmer, Barwin addressed the conclusion reached at the County Commission dais.

“While we appreciate the desire to help with the homeless crisis, please first we urge the county to do no harm,” Barwin wrote. “Further concentrating the homeless in or near downtown and north Sarasota risks doing more harm than good, especially when other options are readily available.”

Community anxiety over the homeless and crime

Concerns regarding neighboring residents’ safety and the potential for increasing crime in proximity to a shelter continue to surface, as evidenced during comments north Sarasota residents have made. Several voiced alarm about the Bucko’s location during the joint city-county meeting on Nov. 6. Then, on Nov. 17, Bayou Oaks resident Abby Weingarten told the county commissioners that the county’s latest proposed sites are too close to Booker High School, Booker Middle School and the Robert L. Taylor Complex.

Bucko's is across Myrtle Street from the city's Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. Roger Drouin photo
Bucko’s is across Myrtle Street from the city’s Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. Roger Drouin photo

A Myrtle Street resident, Weingarten said she has a 6-year-old daughter. “Our community is in turmoil,” pointed out to the board, with residents having learned of the possibility the shelter could be established “in the most family-centered part of our area.”

Yet, Knight told the commissioners later that morning, “The [downtown Sarasota] businesses don’t feel safe. I still get phone calls from businesses in the city, and I have to refer them to the city police. I will not go into the city right now.”

However, Knight said, “I will go into the city when we get this [shelter] operation up and running. … We’ll take care of businesses.”

He stressed that as well in the interview with the News Leader.

The merchants deserve that help, he added, and “people who are homeless deserve to be put somewhere safe.”

Editor Rachel Brown Hackney contributed to this article.