Sarasota city and county commissioners both agreed to continue searching for a site to house a regional come-as-you-are homeless shelter Monday, but the proceeding dialogue painted a much less harmonious picture between the two groups.
Both boards opted not to pursue the sites under consideration, ones homelessness consultant Robert Marbut outlined as top choices, citing concerns about projected construction costs around $9 million each. Still, both county and city commissioners said they believed the city — particularly city administration and staff — was at least partially to blame for a process that has turned up no mutually acceptable sites.
Throughout the meeting, a majority of the County Commission indicated a frustration at the course the shelter search process had taken on the city’s end. County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said he was no longer interested in working with the city until it presented a shelter site that it deemed acceptable; he moved to indefinitely cease county staff’s involvement in the search process.
“I have no faith this thing is going to continue forward,” Barbetta said. “(The county) has done everything we possibly can.”
Although the majority of the County Commission eventually agreed to continue searching for a site, other commissioners also took aim at the city for its actions following the joint hiring of Marbut. Commissioner Christine Robinson targeted City Manager Tom Barwin, accusing him of obstructing the process despite the fact that a majority of the City Commission voted to move forward with Marbut’s recommendations.
In a memo prepared for Monday’s meeting, Barwin criticized Marbut for failing to consider tailoring his recommendations to better address worries city residents, staff and some commissioners voiced.
“City staff has expressed concerns that Dr. Marbut’s criteria did not take into consideration any city criteria,” Barwin wrote. “Dr. Marbut’s criteria is too limiting and threatens to risk creating an additional burden on city government, densely populated neighborhoods and the increasingly busy downtown commerce district.”
Robinson bristled at the idea that specific city criteria needed to be considered in addition to Marbut’s recommendations. She said that, because the majority of both commissions agreed to follow Marbut’s plan, city staff had no authority to suggest other factors should be taken into consideration.
“At some point, this path has to change,” Robinson said. “And it lies with the city to make that change.”
Barwin called the characterization of his remarks misleading. He said that his comments referred to the initial period after which Marbut was retained, before his recommendations were formalized and adopted by both commissions. After that point, he said, city staff has been accommodating in reviewing sites Marbut and the county outlined.
“Once the commission approved his recommendations, we did everything we could to move as quickly as possible,” Barwin said.
Barwin said the city played no role in the higher-than-expected prices associated with building at the two favored sites. Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted issue, Barwin said, which requires careful planning to address. Rather than focus on who said what, he wanted both municipalities to focus on how to tackle the core issue.
“This is what we have to get beyond here,” Barwin said. “It’s wasted energy trying to find a local fall guy.”
Vice Mayor Susan Chapman, an opponent of a city-located come-as-you-are shelter, said she didn’t believe the city manager’s input was out of line. She also took issue with the idea the city was interfering with the location of an acceptable site, considering the reluctance of the county to consider sites outside of the city limits.
“If there are any NIMBYs in this, it’s the county,” Chapman said.
Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Shannon Snyder, frequent critics of Barwin, both took issue with the city manager’s memo. Unless other commissioners begin to share his stance on Barwin, Snyder said, it’s a moot point.
“There’s not two more votes that would vote to get rid of him,” Snyder said. “That’s the kind of government this commission is supporting.”
Now, both city and county staff will look for an acceptable site. They’ll expand their search out of the city limits while still attempting to adhere to Marbut’s recommendation for a shelter located near downtown services. The boards will reconvene in September to discuss the status of their work and any new sites staff has identified.
Commissioners and residents on both sides of the shelter debate may have been exasperated after the four-hour discussion, but if any consensus emerged, it was that something needed to be done to address the issues stemming from homelessness in the region.
“Doing nothing is certainly not an option,” City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said. ‘This is where we are. Let’s just keep working toward it.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]