Sheriff’s Office wins County Commission approval for creation of Homeless Outreach Team

Sheriff Tom Knight and his staff to work with county administration to ensure personnel are hired in timely fashion to deal with new Quality of Life Ordinance

Editor’s note: This article was updated on the morning of Dec. 1 to include a revised estimate of expenses for the Homeless Outreach Team.

The Sheriff’s Office has estimated these expenses for a Homeless Outreach Team. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

No formal vote was taken, but the Sarasota County commissioners agreed with Sheriff Tom Knight this week that his office should field a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) similar to those the Sarasota Police Department has been using for the past several years.

Knight and his staff have estimated the expense for two law enforcement officers, two mental health clinicians and a sergeant, who will serve as the field supervisor, at $540,700 per year. In response to a question, Knight clarified that that expense would be for one team.

Adding in the cost of vehicles bumps the total to about $617,000, but Major Paul Richard, who heads up the Law Enforcement Division for the Sheriff’s Office, told the commissioners that Sheriff’s Office staff would make an effort to try to secure good deals on the vehicles, which could lower the total.

Shortly after he and Chair Paul Caragiulo were elected in November 2014, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, the commission unanimously agreed to pursue the purchase of a building where 250 homeless shelter beds could be created. The cost of that transaction and the necessary renovations was pegged at $4 million, and then the board would have had to pay for extra deputies and mental health workers to staff it, Maio added. “We didn’t do it. There was tremendous pushback about the location.”

Sheriff Tom Knight’s staff originally provided the county this estimate of additional personnel expenses for his department to enforce the Quality of Life Ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Someone looking at Knight’s estimate for the Homeless Outreach Team, Commissioner Charles Hines said, would consider that “a lot of money. That’s not a lot of money compared to what was initially proposed to deal with this issue.”

Hines added that he “never wanted to build a 250-bed shelter … I thought it was too big. This plan is better. Now it’s our job to fund it.”

“We certainly can’t do to you what Tallahassee does to us, by providing an unfunded mandate,” Caragiulo told Knight.

“I’ll run this [team]. I just want to make sure you don’t have a problem [with the budget],” Knight said. “I’ll never say, ‘No.’”

“If you don’t do it,” Hines replied, “then we have to do it,” and the Sheriff’s Office is better suited to handle the initiative.

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Although a formal budget amendment will be needed at some point, Knight told the board on Nov. 28 that his office would begin advertising for the personnel. The goal is to have the team members in place about the time the county’s new Quality of Life Ordinance goes into effect, which is set for March 31.

On Nov. 14, the board unanimously approved that new set of regulations in an effort to resolve issues with vagrants and homeless individuals. Law enforcement personnel will be able to arrest someone — as a last resort — if the person refuses to accept any assistance, including emergency shelter, and persists in violating facets of the new ordinance. The law prohibits lodging out of doors and storage of a multitude of personal items on public land.

Worries about the budget

Knight sent a letter to Chair Caragiulo in August, expressing concern about the pending vote on the Quality of Life Ordinance. After conducting research and consulting with the Sarasota Police Department — whose Homeless Outreach Teams had received national recognition, Knight noted — he and his staff felt that implementing a program of the magnitude envisioned by the County Commission to enforce the Quality of Life Ordinance “will tax the Sheriff’s Office workforce on several levels.”

Given the intense dedication of personnel intrinsic to the outreach efforts, and knowing the financial constraints of his office during the current fiscal year, Knight continued in the letter, “there is simply not enough funding in this agency’s annual budget to allocate resources toward this initiative.”

When he presented his proposed FY18 budget to the board in June, Knight pointed out on Nov. 28, it was up only about 2.1% over the FY17 budget. Adding in a Homeless Outreach Team “will put us at $10 million” in just the annual expenses for the services the office provides at the behest of the County Commission, he explained. Along with operating the Animal Services Section, the office also handles the Public Safety Communications dispatch, including 911 calls.

The Sheriff’s Office senior staff is (from left) Major Jon Goetluck, Col. Kurt Hoffman, Sheriff Tom Knight, Major Jeff Bell and Major Paul Richard. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Already, Knight pointed out he knows he will need to include the hiring of more dispatchers in his 2019 fiscal year budget.

Since Knight became sheriff in 2009, Major Richard noted, crime is down 56% overall in the county. “We’re not willing to give that up,” Richard added, by taking personnel away from their current responsibilities to create a Homeless Outreach Team.

For that matter, Richard continued, the office is experiencing a 15% increase in the number of calls for assistance it receives. “That means we’re very busy.”

“The deputies on the road are getting hammered right now, running calls,” Knight said.

Moreover, Richard explained, best practices the Sheriff’s Office had researched show that “you need folks that work with that [homeless] population every day.”

“We’d have to specially train this group,” just as the Sarasota Police Department teams had to be trained, Knight said.

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

Having Sheriff’s Office teams in the field would be better than having other county staff handling the outreach, Hines said. “That’s what our community wants and expects from us.”

Private citizens and businesses both have suffered negative consequences as a result of the homelessness situation in the county, Hines continued. “We’re never going to solve it. We’re going to manage it way better than we ever have. … There’s no way I can go back to our constituents and say, ‘Well, we just can’t find the $600,000 to do this.’”

“I totally agree with you,” Knight replied.

Maio and Caragiulo also alluded to the fact that, during County Commission budget workshops, the Sheriff’s Office’s budget always is touted as the one that takes the largest percentage of General Fund revenue. (The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue; the board has no restrictions on how it can spend that money.)

“It shouldn’t come as any surprise that it’s the largest piece of the [General Fund] budget,” Caragiulo added. Typically, law enforcement costs are the highest of all expenses for a local government, he pointed out.

Getting down to the details

“When do you need this [money]?” Maio asked Knight, referring to the HOT funds. “To my accounting mind, that’s the first order of business.”

Because the Sheriff’s Office requires all of its potential employees to undergo polygraph tests, Knight responded, “it takes us a little bit of time to get people in, because we weed so many out.”

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

After conferring with Major Richard, Knight estimated that the HOT members could be hired within about two-and-a-half months.

If the office starts the vetting process after the holidays, Richard added, that should allow sufficient time to hire the new personnel before the Quality of Life Ordinance goes into effect.

Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, who will become interim county administrator on Dec. 8 — with the departure of County Administrator Tom Harmer to become the Longboat Key town manager — said he did not believe staff could prepare a budget amendment in time for the board to approve it during its last set of meetings before the end of the year. Those sessions are set for Dec. 12 and 13.

“It’ll have cascading effects,” Lewis added of the extra expense for the Sheriff’s Office. (The board was to begin another budget discussion after talking with Knight and his senior staff.)

Commissioner Hines acknowledged Lewis’ comment. “And this commission would need to stand up and say, ‘We get it, [but] we need to fund [the Homeless Outreach Team] anyway.’”

“I don’t want to find us still making that decision in February [about the HOT budget] and the Sheriff’s Office is doing all of this with the expectation that the funds will be there,” Commissioner Maio added.

“I don’t know that there’s going to be a drop-dead line in the sand,” Knight replied. He and his staff will talk with Lewis, Knight continued. “We’ll make it happen the right way, working with Jonathan.”