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Largo balks at homeless shelter funding request because of police, fire burden

LARGO — St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster wants Largo to help fund the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter. But some Largo officials think they are doing enough already.

Last week, Foster, who has been seeking contributions from other Pinellas cities as well, wrote a letter to Largo's mayor.

"I am very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish with the joint effort to date and I am very proud that so many cities have stepped up during a time when we are all having trouble making ends meet," Foster wrote.

But a check of Largo's leaders shows most are far from eager to contribute city money to support the shelter, which is on 49th Street.

"I know the facility has really placed an additional burden on our police and fire departments," said Commissioner Gigi Arntzen. "To me, that might equate to a financial contribution."

Safe Harbor was designed as a cost-effective way to house homeless offenders whose crimes are minor and nonviolent. It opened on Jan. 6 with about 25 people and now averages about 300.

Since then, Largo Fire Rescue has responded to more than 120 calls to the facility, said Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace. Year-to-date call volume for the fire station in that area is up 7.5 percent, he said.

And virtually every day the Largo Police Department is dealing with chronically homeless people, who are often either drunk or panhandling, said Largo police Chief John Carroll.

"The fact is our service demands have definitely gone up," Carroll said.

Good or bad, Commissioner Woody Brown said, Safe Harbor is putting new pressures on the city's police and fire departments.

"There's a part of me that thinks we're already doing our in-kind contribution out there with fire rescue services," Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said. "I'm going to be interested to talk to the rest of the commission and see what they're thinking, too."

Opinions about Safe Harbor itself vary.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes isn't a fan.

"All you're doing is warehousing," Holmes said. "There's got to be a better way."

Gerard is torn. Gerard, who serves on the county's Homeless Leadership Network, thinks it provides a certain function. But she's more enthusiastic about supporting efforts to help homeless families and children.

Vice Mayor Robert Murray supports the goal of Safe Harbor, but said he doesn't think it's fair to ask taxpayers to support the facility on both sides of the equation.

"I think the whole concept they've come up with is a great concept, but from our perspective as a city I think we're asking our residents to pay twice," he said.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Robert A. Gualtieri said the Sheriff's Office wants to work with Largo to ease its burden, but he's not sure it's a major one.

"There may be some impact, but what I'm seeing and hearing is it's not some off-the-charts impact," Gualtieri said.

He understands that Largo may want to reduce its contribution, but he hopes Largo, like all of the other major cities in the county, decides to pitch in.

"It's a countywide problem," he said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Largo balks at homeless shelter funding request because of police, fire burden 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 6:31pm]

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