ST. PETERSBURG — County Commissioner Norm Roche tangled with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Tuesday over the cost of the Safe Harbor shelter program, which Roche said has morphed into something it was not meant to be.
Roche's grilling of Gualtieri came during a budget information session at St. Petersburg City Hall. Gualtieri is asking for $213.7 million, about $6.8 million more than he got in this year's budget. About $1.6 million of that increase will go to Safe Harbor.
When Safe Harbor was created in December 2010, then-Sheriff Jim Coats touted the program as a diversionary program designed to keep homeless people who commit minor offenses out of jail. That, Coats had said, would save money because it costs less to have someone in the shelter than it does to have them in jail.
But Roche said that during a tour of the shelter he discovered that about half of its 400 residents had not been accused of crimes but had simply wandered up and asked for help. If it's a diversionary program, that's one thing, he said, but if Safe Harbor has morphed into a homeless shelter, then Gualtieri should let someone else take over. Running homeless shelters is not the job of the sheriff, Roche said.
He also questioned the money earmarked for Safe Harbor. If the program is a homeless shelter, then Gualtieri should not be funding it. Instead, Roche said, he could better spend the money hiring more deputies.
If it is a diversionary program, Roche said it's unfair for the county to foot the entire bill when commissioners were told that part of the funding would come from the cities.
Gualtieri said Roche is wrong. Safe Harbor, which is in the 14000 block of 49th Street N, gives police a place to take the homeless rather than charging them with minor infractions so they can take them to jail and get them off the street. The program also helps them get back on their feet so they don't commit as many crimes.
"If we can keep these people from committing the criminal act, that's better than jail," Gualtieri said.
Safe Harbor more than pays for itself, Gualtieri said. If not for the shelter, those 400 homeless would end up in the already overcrowded jail. Gualtieri said he would have to open two wings in the jail to house them at a cost of about $4.5 million. That means Safe Harbor actually save taxpayers about $2.9 million, he said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.