Sarasota county and city staffs have researched food and beverage taxes as well as a special health and mental health taxing district
As Sarasota County staff members continue undertaking due diligence on potential sites for a homeless shelter, pinpointing the funding sources to build and operate such a facility remains a high concern, Wayne Applebee, director of homelessness services for the county, told The Sarasota News Leader in a recent interview.
The county’s 2016 fiscal year budget included $1 million for the site search in which Applebee has been engaged (see the related story in this issue), he said, including the cost of environmental studies and engineering.
However, as he pointed out during a Nov. 17 presentation before the County Commission, the big financial issues more likely will be part of the board’s discussions as staff prepares the 2017 fiscal year budget.
“I wanted to spend time with [the county Office of Financial Management] on multiple options,” Applebee told the News Leader.
The construction of the shelter will entail one-time capital project funding, Applebee noted, while ongoing operational money will be the second big concern.
In Pinellas County, whose Safe Harbor shelter has been cited as a model for a smaller Sarasota County facility, a significant portion of the operating costs come out of the county’s general fund, Cpl. Wayne Gross told the News Leader earlier this month. Additionally, Gross said, the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office — which manages the shelter — contracts with 13 cities in the county for law enforcement services, and those municipalities donate funds to Safe Harbor on an annual basis. However, Gross noted, the amounts vary from year to year. As a result, he added, no general breakdown of funding for Safe Harbor’s operations is available.
During an Oct. 13 presentation to the Sarasota County Commission, Pinellas Sheriff Robert Gualtieri said Safe Harbor’s annual budget is about $2.3 million, and his department covers approximately $1.7 million of the total.
In a June 23, 2014 memo to the County Commission, Applebee and Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery wrote that, based on discussions with the Safe Harbor staff, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office — which will be tasked with operating a Sarasota County facility — and Robert Marbut, the consultant on homelessness the city and county hired together in 2013, they estimated the annual operating costs for a 31,000-square-foot shelter at $1.2 million, “if meals are provided as in-kind contributions and case management is funded through other sources,” which is the Safe Harbor model.
The memo continued, “If these offsets are not included,” the annual operating budget for a come-as-you-are shelter for 250 individuals “is more likely to be $2,400,000.”
On Nov. 6, Applebee discussed the money side of the equation when he addressed a joint meeting of the Sarasota City and County commissions.
“This is a new level of service for which there is no current funding available,” Applebee said of measures to handle the community’s chronically homeless population. No single partner among those expected to be involved in the creation and operation of the facility can shoulder all the financial burden, he pointed out. “It’s a community partner relationship from a funding perspective as well.”
Applebee then presented two options used in other Florida counties. The first is the creation of a health and mental health taxing district. A referendum would be necessary to establish it, he added. “This would have to go to all voters.”
Such a district could generate money for the construction of a shelter as well as ongoing revenue for health and mental health treatment in the county, though not exclusively for homeless individuals, he explained.
The tax revenue could go into the county’s general fund for health and mental health services, he said, freeing up dollars already designated for such programs. That general fund money then could go to the shelter, he explained.
Hardee County is the only local government in the state to have created such a district, Applebee added. “This is not popular in Florida.”
The second proposal is a 1-percent sales tax on food and beverages, as well as alcoholic beverages, he continued. Florida State Statute 212.0306 allows for such a tax to be enacted, he noted. Only Miami-Dade has approved such a measure, he added. Eighty-five percent of the proceeds are to be allocated to services for the homeless population, he said, while the remaining 15 percent would go to domestic violence shelters.
The tax would be applied to food and beverage sales by licensed establishments — but not hotels — with annual gross sales exceeding $400,000, Applebee pointed out.
The Florida Legislature would have to approve a bill allowing Sarasota County to establish such a tax, he said.
“The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is strongly opposed to this measure,” he told the commissioners.
During his presentation to the board members that same morning, Doug Logan, the city’s director of special initiatives for chronic homelessness, said he appreciated Applebee’s raising the issue of the food and beverage tax. Regarding concern about finding the funds for a shelter and other programs for the homeless, Logan added, “It would be naïve to think that it can be resolved without the dedication of new revenue streams.”
Enacting the tax or setting up the health and mental health services funding district, he continued, “would go a long way in bridging the differences between our two bodies.”
Logan was alluding to the fact that the City Commission has focused its efforts on Housing First as the primary means of helping the community’s chronically homeless individuals, while the County Commission has continued to support the establishment of a shelter.
“I keep hearing complaints about the lack of federal and state funding” for the homeless, Logan continued. “[T]his accomplishes nothing.” Instead, he said, the boards should look at the matter as a regional one and, therefore, consider regional funding priorities.
During the board members’ subsequent discussion on Nov. 6, Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell zeroed in on the new funding proposals. “I like hearing these two ideas,” she said. “We’re 49th in the country for mental health [services] for a reason,” she added, referring to national statistics regarding such spending in the state of Florida.
“Maybe it is time [for the county’s residents] to put their money where their passions are and their commitment to the community [is],” she said.
Some residents will be opposed to the ideas, she added, “but I think this is powerful, if something like this could happen, ’cause it’s all about funding. … You’re going to have some sort of captured funding” to pay for case managers in the shelter.
The city commissioners had discussed those funding options in meetings prior to the joint session with the county board.
On Oct. 5, City Manager Tom Barwin talked about research he and his staff had undertaken in regard to financing the Housing First approach. With the latter as well as with a shelter, Barwin noted, “All the other issues pale compared to that.”
When City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked Logan whether he and Applebee had discussed the potential for a tax on alcoholic beverages, Logan told her the proposal had come up at a County Commission meeting, but concern was raised that it would be viewed negatively by the county organization that represents sellers of liquor.
“It’s a ways down the road,” Logan said of the sales tax option.
Daytona Beach government leaders appear interested in that proposal, Barwin added, “because so many counties are wrestling with [homelessness].”
Eddie responded that she had asked John Lege III, the city’s finance director, to research funding proposals as well.
Back at the county offices
In the recent interview with the News Leader, Applebee said he and Logan are continuing to talk on a regular basis as they work with their respective boards on addressing homelessness.
Regarding the beverage tax, for example, Applebee pointed out, “It’s really up to my board [members] to decide if that is the funding route they want to pursue.”
He added that he believes the county commissioners are interested in exploring as many potential options as possible.