ST. PETERSBURG — Several activists called into St. Petersburg’s first public budget hearing of the year, held Thursday via Zoom, with both praise and criticism.
They reiterated their happiness that the city, as announced earlier this year, will create a program in which social workers respond to 911 calls relating to mental health, drug use, nonviolent disputes and homelessness. One caller, Richie Floyd, called the Community Assistance Liaison program “an excellent example of taking a bold stand to show how this city wants to support the people who most need it here.”
But the speakers also expressed confusion over how much money would go into the program — and whether the $850,000 listed on the city’s proposed 2021 budget would be enough to support it.
“I am incredibly disappointed to see how underfunded this program would be in the proposed budget,” said Dream Defenders organizer Ashley Green. “That sounds like setting up a program not for success but instead undermining its efficacy before it’s launched.”
Part of the confusion stems from the city’s July announcement, reported by the Times, that it would reallocate money that had been set aside to match a federal grant the city had been awarded to hire 25 police officers. Under terms of the grant, officials said, the city would have spent $3.8 million over the next few years, with the federal government reimbursing $3.1 million. Some activists wondered how that $3.8 million for police hires became $850,000 for the new program.
But the city never planned to spend that much money on the new program, not all at once, officials said. The city had to turn down the $3.1 million in federal aid because it was specifically tailored toward hiring new officers. It moved the money that it had planned to spend to match the federal grant to the new program, said Tom Greene, the assistant city administrator who oversees budgetary affairs.
“And it is a little bit more than we thought under the grant scenario — we are investing slightly more,” he said.
Some callers in Thursday’s meeting noted that police Chief Anthony Holloway has compared the Community Assistance Liaison program to one in Eugene, Ore., a smaller city that last year spent more than $1 million on its program. They also noted that less than 1 percent of the city’s public safety budget will go to this program, which Holloway has estimated over recent months could respond to anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent of the city’s 911 calls.
Greene said the city arrived at $850,000 as its initial investment.
“It’s not the final determination of what the project or the initiative will look like over the period of 15, 20 years,” he said. “It is the very start.”