ST. PETERSBURG — Before City Council members voted on next year’s budget, more than 16 people spent an hour pleading with them to increase funding for affordable housing and the city’s new Community Assistance Liaison pilot program.
“We should put massive amounts of money into affordable housing,” said resident Bruce Nissen. “It is the number one concern in the city, let’s do it.”
The council didn’t budge, passing Mayor Rick Kriseman’s recommended 2020-21 budget without adjusting a single dollar.
St. Petersburg will have a $672 million operating budget. About $11.4 million will go toward affordable housing and $850,000 is earmarked for the first year of the liaison program, which will send social services workers and paramedics to respond to certain nonviolent 911 calls, such as a mental health crisis.
Police officers will initially accompany them for safety, but the goal of the program is for officers to stop handling those calls.
The property tax rate will remain steady, at $6.755 dollars per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable value.
Residents spoke out by calling into the virtual meeting, including many who have spent months marching with the St. Pete Peace Protest group. They sought to increase funding for those initiatives.
Some pointed to the police department’s $117 million budget, suggesting money could be reallocated. Some said the city’s initial announcement about the liaison program, that the pilot would receive $3.8 million in funding, was misleading. In fact, the $3.8 million figure — which would have gone toward hiring new officers — will fund it for three years.
Resident Karla Correa, arguing for more funding for the liaison program, pointing to the August death of Jeffrey Haarsma, a 55-year-old man with a documented history of mental illness. A St. Petersburg police officer shot and killed him while he attacked her, authorities say.
Two investigations have found the officer’s actions were justified, but questions have been raised about how St. Petersburg officers acted beforehand. A report released Thursday by the Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force said St. Petersburg police made several mistakes dealing with Haarsma on Aug. 6 and Aug. 7. The officers there the night of the shooting should have handled the matter as a mental health call, it said, not a criminal one. The officer who shot him was also warned to take precautions, the report said, but still attempted to handcuff him by herself.
“The person who was just shot by police in august because they were having a mental health crisis in St. Pete, they’re dead," Correa said. "People’s lives are actually on the line. So this needs to be funded properly.”
But City Council members declined to adjust the budget during the city’s second and final public hearing on the matter, voting unanimously to approve it. It will go into effect Oct. 1, the start of the 2021 fiscal year.
The council Members thanked the community for being so engaged, and congratulated the administration for putting together a budget amid uncertain revenue projections due to the pandemic. Many acknowledged the speakers' concerns.
Council member Amy Foster said she agreed there isn’t enough money allocated for affordable housing, and that the city will have to look for more funding in the future. But for now, she said, “this is where are are tonight.”
“We all know that we’re in an affordable housing crisis, but we are addressing it to the best of our ability," said council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
Council member Robert Blackmon asked residents to be patient with the liaison program because it’s a pilot program that hasn’t even started yet. It’s sure to have some kinks, he said.
“We’re moving into the unknown with the (liaison) program," he said, “but we’re trying to do everything we can."
Some members said they were intrigued by callers' suggestions that there should be community oversight of the liaison program — or at least that the community should weigh in on which social services organization is awarded the city contract — and that the program send regular reports to City Council.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders encouraged the residents who called in, even though the council didn’t acquiesce to their wishes.
“Please believe me, you have made such a valuable difference to where we are now," she said. "We know we have a lot more to do, we get that.”