Proposed Quality of Life Ordinance to be focus of Sheriff’s Office and County Commission discussions, though public hearing remains set for Nov. 14

Sheriff cites concerns about cost of new personnel he feels will be needed for outreach to homeless individuals after law goes into effect

Sheriff Tom Knight. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In August, Sheriff Tom Knight wrote a letter to the Sarasota County Commission, expressing worries that a new Quality of Life Ordinance, as drafted, would necessitate his hiring more personnel to engage with homeless individuals in an effort to keep the latter out of jail.

The law would make illegal actions such as sleeping in county parks after closing and storing personal belongings out of doors. While the Sarasota Police Department has Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) that encourage homeless individuals in the city limits to go to shelters or seek appropriate treatment from care providers, the Sheriff’s Office does not have sufficient staff to provide that type of outreach, Knight wrote in his Aug. 18 letter.

On Oct. 10, Major Paul Richard, commander of the Law Enforcement Division of the Sheriff’s Office, appeared before the commission to address the Sheriff’s Office’s concerns about the Quality of Life Ordinance.

Even though crime in the county has dropped 53% over the past eight years, Richard said, he reminded the board about a comments he made during the Sheriff’s Office’s budget presentation in June: “We’re busier than we’ve ever been.”

Deputies are having to handle more traffic crashes (the figure is up 38% in two years), he noted, and the office has recorded a 14% increase in calls for service of all types in the first three quarters of this fiscal year.

Richard acknowledged that the nationally known consultant the City of Sarasota and the county hired in 2013 — Richard Marbut — called for the implementation of a Quality of Life Ordinance among about a dozen recommendations after assessing the county’s problems with homelessness.

Among the best practices across the United States, Richard continued, is the implementation of Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) in conjunction with the enforcement of such ordinances. That means “specific personnel, properly trained,” Richard added.

Yet, as Richard and the sheriff also have pointed out to the County Commission, the Sheriff’s Office’s senior staff has been taking every possible step to keep its budget as low as possible.

Knight noted that the board planned a discussion of county finances later during the Oct. 10 meeting.

Major Paul Richard. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In his Aug. 18 letter to the board, Knight wrote, “My greatest concern lies in funding for a program of this magnitude,” referring to a county equivalent of the city HOT teams. “In an effort to be fiscally conservative and mindful of taxpayer dollars while prioritizing the need for public safety,” he continued, the Sheriff’s Office “simply [does] not [have] enough funding in [its] annual budget to allocate resources toward this initiative. Not only is it manpower intensive but it will require additional full time employees … equipment and infrastructure.”

Finding the right balance of resources and response

“I have no doubt that you all will probably need some more people to deal with this,” Commissioner Charles Hines told Knight and Richard on Oct. 10. Nonetheless, Hines said, he has envisioned county staff handling the majority of the outreach to homeless individuals after passage of the ordinance, instead of teams from the Sheriff’s Office. Yet, Hines acknowledged, he was not sure how his colleagues on the board felt about that.

Hines described a scenario in which county staff would find a homeless person in a park at 10 a.m. “with a bunch of sleeping bags and tents and a dog and four bicycles. “What happens? Who’s going to do what?”

If after three attempts to persuade the person to accept help available in the community the person still refuses to comply with the new ordinance, Hines said he believed an arrest would be necessary.

“It’s the small group of this population that refuses to engage,” Hines added.

“We may end up arresting them and we don’t want to arrest them,” Knight told him.

The goal in getting homeless people to accept help, Knight pointed out, is to build relationships with them. “We can do it; your county staff can do it.”

However, either way, Knight added, the funding for the personnel will have to come out of the county’s budget.

“To that end, I think a combination [of Sheriff’s Office personnel and county staff members] would work well,” Commissioner Alan Maio replied.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Because funding is at the crux of the issue, Maio continued, “we have to openly look at that square in the eye and see where that money is going to be needed.”

Maio earlier had suggested that Sheriff’s Office senior staff members meet one-on-one with the board members to talk about the rising jail population. (See the related story in this issue.) Maio indicated that those discussions should incorporate dialogue about the Quality of Life Ordinance, as well. After those sessions have been completed, Maio said, the commissioners and representatives of the Sheriff’s Office should hold a workshop on the issues. Hines concurred with him. County Administrator Tom Harmer said county staff would work with the Sheriff’s Office to set up those discussions.

County staff might need to tweak the proposed Quality of Life Ordinance, Hines added. Still, he said he wanted to keep the public hearing on schedule. It is set for Nov. 14.

(The public hearing originally was planned for Oct. 11. However, because of Hurricane Irma and the desire to allow Knight and his staff an opportunity to address the board about their concerns, the hearing was delayed, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader this week.)

Referring to the draft of the ordinance he had seen, Knight told the board, “I assure you that we are going to end up in civil litigation.”

If the ordinance is approved on Nov. 14, Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services for the homeless, explained that the law would not go into effect until March 31. That schedule was planned to ensure that Sheriff’s Office personnel and the community providers that assist the homeless would have sufficient time for training on enforcement.

“I think that’s good,” Knight said. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing.”