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St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Bill Foster pledges to get tough on homeless

ST. PETERSBURG — The city is too welcoming to the homeless, creating a growing need that area social service agencies and law enforcement officers cannot keep up with, Mayor-elect Bill Foster said Monday.

He pledged to strengthen and enforce existing no-panhandling laws, expand regulations that limit commerce on public walkways and strictly enforce the city's loitering ordinances.

Foster stressed he would take a "caring and compassionate" approach and work with local shelters to help them provide more bathrooms, showers and beds for the homeless.

"I want to enforce the laws, the ordinances that are on the books, regarding the homeless," Foster said in a wide-ranging talk with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

Foster, who will be sworn in Jan. 2, pledged continuity peppered with tempered changes on the campaign trail.

The city's homeless are a mounting problem, he said, and will be a priority in his administration.

He said he will meet with the staff at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas to discuss building permanent bathrooms on the property. This would supply the city with a better legal defense if arrests of the homeless for public urination or defecation are challenged, he said.

Patricia Waltrich, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, worked with Mayor Rick Baker's staff on a similar proposal that was quickly abandoned after funding could not be secured for the self-contained bathrooms, which cost roughly $30,000 each.

"On top of that, you would have to have security and maintenance," she said. "That's just something our budget would not permit."

• • •

Foster said he met with police leaders Monday to let them know that police Chief Chuck Harmon has his complete confidence.

He and Harmon have met several times since the Nov. 3 election, Foster said, and are coming to agreement on key issues like community policing. They plan to host a summit in February to get public input.

Foster said he wants the police department to adopt preventive policing tactics employed in large metropolitan areas, such as using statistics and technology to predict future crime hubs and a citywide crime watch.

He also still hopes to relax the department's restrictive chase policy, a stance long criticized by Harmon. Foster, who campaigned on a pursuit platform supported by the local police unions, said he and Harmon have yet to come to an agreement on that issue.

Harmon was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.

• • •

Foster also said he has broad plans for the city's arts organizations.

Baker recently eliminated the city's arts director to create an arts development offshoot under economic development. Foster said the city's arts programs should be reshuffled again under the auspices of Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who will be in charge of community enrichment services in Foster's administration.

Foster said he will encourage more coordination between arts organizations.

"Do we need five dance troupes?" he said. "If we can consolidate or encourage them to consolidate so we can continue to reach the masses with less governmental help, all the better."

He also said he would establish a new task force to review the Mahaffey Theater's management agreement and help broaden the downtown venue's reach. There are still "too many dark nights," he said.

Still, for the most part, Foster has no plans to drastically transform City Hall.

Like Baker, Foster said he won't reach into the city's reserves to fund ongoing expenses.

He also plans to keep Baker's name for the majority black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.

"People like the 'Midtown' brand," he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Bill Foster pledges to get tough on homeless 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 11:48pm]

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