Programs designed to help at-risk kids steer clear of crime have themselves been put at risk by hefty cuts to the Pinellas County sheriff's budget.
Affected are Step Up for at-risk youths, the after-school homework assistance program and the Police Athletic League program. The after-school program is offered in Lealman, High Point and Rainbow Village. PAL, with its emphasis on sports, is offered across the county is such places as Lealman and Dunedin. Although the programs target kids from low-income to poverty-level families, any child is welcome.
Step Up and the after-school program have been funded from the sheriff's operating budget, but that's about to end, said Bob Gualtieri, chief deputy. The sheriff has to cut about $20.1 million from his budget. Most of the cuts have centered on so-called life skills programs, while the focus remains on the department's core law enforcement services.
Step Up, with constructive activities and classes, has received a $150,000 federal grant, and that and the after-school program have been moved to the PAL budget. Until now, a small part of PAL's funding has come from the sheriff, with the majority from private donations. From now on, PAL will have to receive all its funding from private sources.
That's what puts all the programs at risk, Gualtieri said. PAL has enough money to keep itself and the other programs going for about a year, maybe a bit more if belts are tightened, but all will be eliminated after that if fundraising falls flat.
"I don't see anything that's imminent," Gualtieri said, but they are "in jeopardy."
Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who is on the PAL board, said the organization has some money available from fundraising but that it will only go so far. Board members had "big and heartfelt conversations" at their last meeting on how much money must be raised to keep PAL going, he said. But it's worth the struggle because "wherever PAL goes, youth crime diminishes."
"We're open to all donations and people who want to step in," Brickfield said. "We're just giving kids a safe place to play."
The prospect of losing the programs distresses Lealman Community Association president Ray Neri. Neri and his group had long lobbied to have programs to help the area's youth and were thrilled when the sheriff moved in.
The success of the programs, Neri said, can be seen by the hundreds of kids who come to the various activities. They've found out about the programs mostly through word of mouth because no advertising has been done in the schools or elsewhere. It's testimony, he said, to the need, the community interest and the willingness of kids to participate if given constructive activities.
"It was such a profound idea to engage kids before they got into real trouble, to offer them mentorships," he said. "It gives them the opportunity to use their energy in positive ways."
Neri said he understands the need to be more frugal in harsh economic times, but that eliminating programs that keep kids off the streets is fiscally foolish in the long run.
Taxpayers may save money now, he said, but they'll pay thousands more on the other end to prosecute and house kids who get into trouble later in life.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450 or twitter.com/alindbergtimes.