Despite hours of public comment and strong, often discordant rhetoric from both boards, Sarasota city and county commissioners both agreed to continue searching for a site to house a regional come-as-you-are homeless shelter Monday.
Neither board voted to pursue the two sites officially under consideration, located at 1800 N. East Ave. and 1330 N. Osprey Ave. On the recommendation of consultant Robert Marbut, the city and county have been evaluating sites for a 24/7 emergency adult homeless shelter. At an earlier joint meeting, the county and city agreed to conduct environmental evaluations and obtain cost estimates for the two outlined sites.
On Monday, both groups cited concerns about the projected costs associated with constructing a shelter on those sites, which came in at $8.9 million and $9.2 million, respectively. Specific issues discovered on the potential properties contributed to the higher-than-expected costs, an explanation that did little to calm commissioners.
“I look and this and just hit my hand to my forehead,” County Commissioner Nora Patterson said regarding the cost projections.
A third site, which emerged later in the process, saw a more favorable reaction from the county. The property at 209 N. Lime Ave., which contains four buildings totaling 23,533 square feet on 1.98 acres, is on the market for $2.95 million. County staff said the costs of constructing a shelter would be significantly reduced at that site, the home of the Harvest Tabernacle Church, because of the ability to use the preexisting buildings.
Although the county asked the city to wait until Monday’s meeting to take any action, the City Commission voted unanimously not to consider the 209 N. Lime Ave. site as a potential location for a homeless shelter last week. The group said that the land, zoned as downtown edge, was intended to house a more dynamic development. The board didn’t change its stance at Monday’s meeting, and the county agreed not to move on the property as a result.
“That’s just the area we want to do the redevelopment and revitalization in,” Mayor Willie Shaw said at last week’s City Commission meeting.
Throughout the meeting, several County Commissioners 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 working with the city until it presented a shelter site that it deemed acceptable.
“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 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 and other city staff, accusing them 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, Barwin criticized Marbut for failing to consider tailoring his recommendations to better address worries voiced by city residents, staff, and some commissioners.
“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 — along with other county and city commissioners — 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 said that his comments referred to the initial period after which Marbut was retained, before his recommendations were formalized and adopted by both commissions. Following that point, he said, city staff has been accommodating in the process of evaluating the sites Marbut recommended. He said that the city and county had failed to locate an acceptable site in part because Marbut did not consider other methods for locating a come-as-you-are homeless shelter.
Still, both city and county staff will look for an acceptable site together, expanding 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.
Commissioners and residents on both side 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].