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FAST Coalition presses Pinellas elected leaders for changes

Amad Stephens, 14, and mom Bridget Stephens of Largo listen to proposals Monday at the FAST Coalition event.
Published Apr. 28, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Stephen Manning wants to work, but his past hangs around his neck like an anchor.

First arrested at 17 for stealing a cassette tape from Walmart, the 48-year-old St. Petersburg resident was in and out of jail for drug-related offenses when he decided a dozen years ago to change so that he wouldn't have to talk to his children "through a Plexiglas barrier." He'd work in a warehouse or at a fast-food restaurant, but employers aren't interested because of his record.

"We need more opportunities for people like me who want to work and can work but just aren't being given the chance," Manning told a crowd of about 3,000 gathered Monday night at Tropicana Field for the FAST Coalition's annual Nehemia Action Assembly.

A coalition of Pinellas churches and synagogues with the motto "Faith and Action for Strength Together," FAST puts local officials on the spot each year to effect change on a range of social policy issues. The event is named after a biblical leader who called authorities to account. The odds are looking good that would-be employees like Manning will have a better shot at getting a job in St. Petersburg.

Four of the city's eight council members and Mayor Rick Kriseman told FAST members that they support changes to city ordinances being drafted to require city contractors to hire "disadvantaged workers" who have criminal records or already have lower incomes.

The group wants the city's ordinance to define disadvantaged workers as applicants making less than 30 percent of the area's median income at the time they are seeking the new jobs. The group also wants the ordinances to apply to projects with price tags of $2 million or more. The ordinances as written sets a minimum of $10 million for the project price tag and gives preferences to applicants making 80 percent of the area's median income again.

Council members Karl Nurse, Darden Rice and Wengay Newton said they supported the requests. So did Chairman Charlie Gerdes and Kriseman, though they want a 50 percent threshold for defining a low-wage earner.

"I'm asking you to meet me in the middle," Gerdes said.

Kriseman encouraged the crowd to urge their state lawmakers to reject at least two bills percolating that could strip the power of local governments to enact local hiring laws.

"If those bills pass, no matter what we do we can't enforce our local ordinances," Kriseman said.

Three county commissioners who attended, Pat Gerard, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, were asked to release a request for proposals by Aug. 15 to spend $10 million in Penny for Pinellas for affordable housing projects. That's already in the works, Justice said, drawing cheers.

The commissioners also agreed to support setting aside about $950,000 in next year's budget for a proposed mental health pilot project to treat 33 "high utilizers" who repeatedly wind up in the county's jail and its Baker Act facility. Each participant would be assigned a treatment team consisting of a law enforcement representative, case manager and therapist. Nearly three-quarters of the targeted participants are homeless, so the program would focus on providing permanent housing.

"If it works, we'll have a model the entire country can use," Gerard said.

Commissioner Ken Welch sent the group an email saying he also would support the request, making a majority on the seven-member commission.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri agreed to put in writing his agency's decade-old policy to allow some juvenile offenders to take part in a diversion program more than one time, and to allow participation for some third-degree felonies.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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