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Tampa council wants city to spend more on homeless

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn has budgeted just over $2 million to help the homeless or near-homeless in 2014. Tampa City Council members would like the city to spend more.

At a special meeting Thursday morning, council members quizzed Buckhorn’s finance director, Sonya Little, about the city’s homeless strategy with a focus on exactly how much of that $2 million comes from the city’s own pockets.

The questions were part of a nearly two-hour discussion of a half-dozen issues that council members thought deserved more attention in the budget, including a proposed $25,000 subsidy for the Ybor City Museum that was dropped three years ago.

Council members will hold their second hearing on the budget Sept. 25. It goes into effect Oct. 1.

Nearly 90 percent of the city’s homeless funding comes from federal grants, a revenue source being squeezed by budget pressure in Washington, D.C.

The balance, about $205,000, is covered by the city’s own taxes. Most of that, $150,000, covers the Tampa Police Department’s homeless outreach program. Another $55,000 goes to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

“The city is making an effort to support the homeless,” Little told council members.

The city depends on Hillsborough County to finance the lion’s share of services to the homeless. But Councilwoman Lisa Montelione suggested the city should rethink that approach.

“A large portion of the homeless in Hillsborough County are in the city limits,” Montelione said. “Although we have Hillsborough County as the lead governmental body for social services, it is a City of Tampa need.”

By taking a larger role in its own homeless problem, the city could avoid the kind of scandal that prompted County Administrator Mike Merrill to fire the county’s social services director this week, Montelione suggested.

Merrill fired Sam Walthour after revelations surfaced that the county paid $625,000 from its homeless recovery program to former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown to house homeless people.

Brown was cited in July for running an illegal, squalid trailer park on his property in Old Seminole Heights. He quickly dismantled the trailer park and resigned his governor-appointed post on the port authority board.

Merrill has said he’d like to drop the homeless recovery program and hand the job over to non-profits that serve the homeless or near-homeless.

Montelione said the city should step up and take on some of that work.

“I’m not sure that it is wise for the city to continue to trust Hillsborough County to administer programs that directly affect citizens within our city limits,” Montelione said. “I think we can do a better job.”

Council members also strongly backed calls by supporters of the Ybor City Museum State Park to restore $25,000 to the city’s subsidy for the museum. The museum is set to get $51,200 in 2014, the same amount it has received for three years.

Museum officials asked the council last week to increase that subsidy, given that the city expects to take in about $7 million more in property taxes next year.

“I wish we could find that money in the budget for them, because it’s important,” Councilwoman Mary Mulhern told Little.

In May, the museum acquired the home of Tampa baseball legend Al Lopez and moved it to a nearby lot to house a record of the city’s connections to baseball.

Little countered that the city gets lots of calls for help from nonprofits needing cash.

“We’ve had knocks on the door from everybody,” she said.

Reddick, whose district includes Ybor City, urged Little to consider the museum’s request.

“Is there a problem with restoring the $25,000 for operations funds?” Reddick asked.

“That is a problem, sir,” Little said. “We have lots of non-profits that have been cut. For this year, it would be extremely difficult to justify at this point.”

Each city budget includes a catalog of subsidies, fees and other spending lumped under the umbrella of “non-departmental” spending. In 2014, that part of the city budget comes to just over $20 million.

The ins and outs of how a group gets on the subsidy list remain obscure.

Many of the recipients, such as the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Florida Aquarium, are the tenants of city-owned property. Other non-departmental spending pays for Tampa’s membership in the Florida League of Cities or supports groups from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay to the Spanish Lyric Theater.

Reddick suggested the city deduct the $25,000 from the Straz’s allocation.

The theater has been promised a $1 million gift by the developers of the Residences at the Riverwalk, an apartment tower proposed for a city-owned acre near the Straz front door.

“You can subtract that 25 from that million, and they still have plenty of money,” Reddick said.

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