DUNEDIN — City commissioners will have to decide for themselves whether to help fund a county homeless shelter, because two city committees tasked with researching the matter have offered opposing recommendations.
The mayor and city manager asked Dunedin's public safety and social services committees to examine St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's request for $25,000 for Pinellas Safe Harbor. The shelter — designed as a cost-effective way to divert homeless offenders who might otherwise end up in jail for minor, nonviolent crimes — opened Jan. 6 on 49th Street near the Pinellas County Jail.
The public safety committee unanimously supports Foster's request, saying the shelter will fill an increasing need and cost taxpayers a lot less than housing homeless individuals in jail.
But social services committee members say the Safe Harbor budget they saw was "incomplete and confusing," making it impossible to determine whether city funds would fulfill their committee's mission of helping residents or might be diverted to other shelter costs like administration. They're recommending that commissioners instead steer those funds directly to local homeless assistance and rehabilitation services or give their committee authority to distribute the money.
Commissioners will discuss the recommendations at their Thursday night meeting.
"Public safety and social services are coming at it from two different elements," said Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, "so I'm not surprised you might have two different opinions."
If commissioners follow the social services committee's recommendation, Dunedin would become the first city so far to refuse outright Foster's request for money for Safe Harbor.
Foster and shelter officials have requested different amounts based on the population of each city. So far, 12 have committed funds, ranging from St. Petersburg's $100,000 donation to Belleair Beach's $1,000 contribution.
Citing budget constraints, Safety Harbor agreed last month to chip in $2,500 instead of the $5,000 to $10,000 requested by Foster. Largo officials continue to debate whether they should chip in anything beyond emergency response to the nearby facility, which they say is draining city fire and police resources.
Members of both Dunedin citizen committees toured Safe Harbor after listening to presentations by Pinellas County Sheriff's Office representatives. Committee meeting minutes show those presentations included information and statistics on community need and shelter staffing.
But social services committee chairman John Fullerton said members wanted more detailed data showing specifically where the city's donation would go.
"We were looking for what most of us have seen out of the organizations we come from: an operating budget report of some sort with detailed line items. And what we saw was more that categories were being reported," said Fullerton, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Dunedin.
"We're supportive of the need for it, but we wanted to make sure if the city was going to give money, it's going to go to the people who have the need," he said. "It may, but we couldn't say with clarity that it would in fact do that."
Fullerton said the committee's stance could change if it received assurance about how the donation would be used.
Michael Quill, a Tampa reserve police officer and retired Gulfport police lieutenant who chairs the public safety committee, said his group was focused more on the "meat and potatoes" concept of the program.
The main point favoring funding of Safe Harbor, he said, is the cost: about $26 a day to house the homeless at Safe Harbor versus about $126 a day at the jail. Quill said committee members assumed the city's donation would fund the caseworkers, counselors and other shelter staff needed to help residents get back on the right track.
He noted, too, that other homeless facilities are overcrowded and often won't accept people who are intoxicated or on drugs.
"Safe Harbor will take all of these people," he said. "This program will help more and cost less."
Several city commissioners said they want to hear more. Bujalski specifically wants to see the budget information referenced by the social services committee.
Mayor Dave Eggers said some of the people Safe Harbor serves might include former Dunedin residents who have fallen on hard times.
"I do feel like we have an obligation to play a role in the homeless problem we have in Pinellas County because homelessness doesn't know borders," he said.
If approved, the donation would come out of the city's $6.7 million reserve fund, officials said.
Commissioners don't have to make a final decision Thursday, and Bujalski cautioned that it might be too early in the budget process to make such a decision regarding next year's budget.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said officials understand that everyone is in a budget crunch, and the department is exploring other options cities might have for participating, such as community block grants.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.