Sheriff expresses concern about significant financial impact new Sarasota County Quality of Life Ordinance could have on his department and seeks public discussion with County Commission

Commissioner Charles Hines says county administrator will plan time for such a session

Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight requested a public discussion with the County Commission before the board holds a hearing on Oct. 11 on a proposed new “Quality of Life Ordinance” designed to deal with homeless individuals who refuse social assistance that could help them transition into housing.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the board, Knight expressed concerns about the financial impact his department would incur in broadening its aid to homeless people in an effort to keep them out of jail. Although the Sarasota Police Department has an award-winning Homeless Outreach Team program, Knight pointed out, that department has a jurisdiction covering “only 25 square miles compared to the more than 725 miles of unincorporated Sarasota County.”
Knight added, “As evident in various parks and beaches throughout Englewood, Nokomis and Venice, we too, have a large contingency who may need services.”

“My greatest concern,” Knight wrote, “lies in funding for a program of this magnitude. 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.”

In the meantime, county staff will host a public workshop on the proposed ordinance. That session will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, “to provide the community an opportunity to offer feedback” on it,” a county news release says.

Commissioners Charles Hines and Alan Maio, especially, have voiced vexation on several occasions during recent months, because the county has not had sufficient resources in place to help the homeless and, as a result, Sheriff’s deputies have been unable to enforce regulations relating to sleeping outdoors, for example. The Office of the County Attorney has cautioned against such enforcement because of a federal district court ruling known as the Pottinger Agreement. That decision said law enforcement officers of the City of Miami could not arrest homeless individuals for life-sustaining conduct — such as sleeping in a park after hours — when no emergency shelter was available as an alternative.

In April, the Sarasota City Commission and the County Commission accepted the findings of a new report on how best to deal with homelessness issues in the community. Among them was a recommendation that 50 beds be reserved for immediate care of homeless individuals. A memo provided to the County Commission in advance of its Aug. 29 meeting — written by Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services to the homeless — says that if the ordinance is approved on Oct. 11, one of staff’s next steps will be to “[d]evelop and execute a contact with The Salvation Army to provide the required emergency shelter beds. The annual estimated cost for 30 beds (to be combined with the [City of Sarasota’s] 20 beds) is $383,250.”

After the April presentation on the report — which was written by Susan Pourciau, director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition — the County Commission asked its staff to begin working in earnest on a revised Quality of Life Ordinance.

The proposed Quality of Life Ordinance includes these among its findings of fact. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The draft was provided to all the municipalities in the county and to other agencies — including the Sheriff’s Office — this spring and summer, with the hope — as the county commissioners put it — that they would achieve complete “buy-in” before putting it into effect.

A memo provided to the board in advance of the commission’s Aug. 29 meeting — written by Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services to the homeless — says that if the ordinance is approved on Oct. 11, the next steps will include encouraging “each municipality to enact or revise existing ordinances to be unified with this draft.”

The County Commission voted unanimously on Aug. 29 to advertise the public hearing on the ordinance. The item was listed under a county Health and Human Services Department heading on the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters that day: “To authorize a public hearing on an ordinance relating to camping and storage of personal property on public land.”

While any commissioner may pull an item from that agenda for further discussion, no one mentioned Knight’s letter before the vote.

A homeless person camps in Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota. Image from the City of Sarasota

However, Commissioner Hines responded to Knight’s concerns in an email he sent to the sheriff on Aug. 28: “[W]e need to get our Administration, the [commission] and your Staff all together and publically get on the same page.”

In a follow-up email on Aug. 30, Hines informed Knight that he had spoken with County Administrator Tom Harmer “about the need to have a work session with our Commission on the implementation, logistics, and costs of this very important quality of life and public safety law. He will be in touch with you very soon to put this together so we are all on the same page.”

As of the morning of Aug. 31, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader, no meeting had been scheduled yet.

‘Implementing a program of this magnitude’

In his Aug. 18 letter, Knight wrote, “In order to divert individuals from the county jail through the proposed Quality of Life Ordinance, efforts would clearly need to begin on the front-end. While the idea is promising and may certainly make an impact on our homeless and transient populations, the demands it would put on any organization are significant.”

Knight reminded the commissioners that when he presented his proposed 2018 fiscal year budget to them on June 20, he pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office personnel level is 7.3% lower than it was in 2007.

After conducting research and consulting with the Sarasota Police Department about its Homeless Outreach Team program, Knight continued, his staff found that “implementing a program of this magnitude will tax the Sheriff’s Office workforce on several levels.”

The sheriff pointed out that the city’s Homeless Outreach Team members conduct “daily outreach by providing transportation, responding to requests for service, coordinating housing vouchers and providing case management to clients that sometimes [lasts] up to 12 months. To that end, the team also heavily relies on community partners and organizations including the health department, Salvation Army, Resurrection House and others, to make contact with homeless and transient individuals on a daily basis.”

Leslie Loveless, then-executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens to Capt. Kevin Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department make a presentation about the Homeless Outreach Team program in February 2016. File photo

The Police Department program has seven full-time employees, Knight added, “both sworn and civilian.”

He attached a summary of the HOT program’s efforts to underscore his concerns.

In his subsequent email exchanges with Hines, Knight wrote that he and his staff believe “there may be miscommunication [regarding] the operational aspects of the current conditions of the ordinance.” That was why he proposed the workshop, he noted, so he and appropriate members of his team could be present, as well as “the appropriate county staff members.”

Knight added, “As you know, direct communication between the Sheriff and the County Commissioners often resolves any real or perceived issues. Our dialogue would also provide transparency to the public [regarding the] philosophy of the ordinance, the creation of the ordinance and the operational needs to implement the ordinance.”
Moreover, Knight suggested the discussion include attention to “what training will be needed to ensure [the ordinance is] implemented as intended and legal to reduce any exposure to litigation,” along with a focus on the necessary resources and discussion about “what organization will be responsible for taking the lead with the operations.”

Hines responded, “By no means do I read this Ordinance as requiring [his emphasis] your deputies to act as a [Homeless Outreach Team] … To my knowledge we have never used that term when talking about the creation and enforcement of this Ordinance by your officers.”

Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

As he read the draft ordinance, Hines continued, the outreach, housing and personal property issues will be left to county staff “after your officer finds cause to take a person to the shelter. If our staff and/or your staff are reading it differently then this needs to be hashed out as part of the publication of the ordinance. As I see it, your officers would respond to complaints, not be searching out these people to offer services like the City of Sarasota does. Our staff/private organizations would do that. Then if an individual continues to refuse assistance and remains in a public area in violation of the rules/hours then we would seek your help to remove that person either to a shelter or if they refuse the offer and do not leave, then unfortunately to jail.”

The public workshop

In announcing the Sept. 6 workshop on the proposed ordinance, a county news release explains that the regulations, as proposed, “[engage] individuals experiencing homelessness while residing on public land, and encourages them to take advantage of shelter, housing and services. The proposed ordinance also provides law enforcement officials with another tool to engage the homeless community, and requires the offer of free shelter and transportation prior to issuing any enforcement violations for camping, storing of personal property or improperly using public lands.”

The release adds, “Once in shelter, those individuals will be afforded the opportunity to explore housing options through the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness’ Continuum of Care Coordinate Entry System.”

The workshop will be held in the first floor press room, at the Sarasota County Administration Building in downtown Sarasota, which is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd.

For more information, interested persons may the county Contact Center at 861-5000.

To view the draft ordinance, the visit Sarasota County’s Homeless Services page.