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Why I opposed Penny for Pinellas

Despite a budget surplus, the county has contributed practically nothing for the homeless.

Published March 18, 2007


With the results for the renewal of the Penny for Pinellas indicating its acceptance for 10 more years by the voters, many have asked me in the last several days how I feel about the outcome. Others, particularly county officials, have asked why I did what I did. I hope to answer both of these generic questions.

I felt badly about the outcome of the vote for renewal for several reasons. First and obviously, I was unable on the strength of my own passion and arguments to sway enough voters to carry the day. I knew from the outset that such a result would be something bordering on the miraculous. Second, one of my objections was to the scheduling of the renewal in an off-year election and I hoped for a higher voter turnout, win, lose or draw. That also did not happen. This matter is so urgent in my mind that it deserved a greater debate and more participation. Third, the poor and elderly and vulnerable were not substantially better off on Wednesday than they were on Tuesday morning. One slight bright light on the horizon is the fact that for the first time the county and cities did include 1.5 percent of the nearly $2-billion for the purchase of land for affordable housing. Somewhere and sometime over the years 2010 to 2019 something like $3-million a year will be used for acquiring property for affordable housing.

Why did I do it? I have made clear from the outset that the early inability of the city of St. Petersburg to deal effectively and adequately with the problem of the homeless prompted me to begin to ask what exactly is being done for the poor and vulnerable in our county. I saw the apartments and mobile home parks along my drive home on Fourth Street N give way to moderately expensive condos and more strip malls and asked my pastors, what is happening to the people, the elderly who thought they could retire and spend their remaining days here? I was told they were moving back north, to be cared for by relatives, sacrificing independence for dependence. They have quietly and obscurely moved out and moved on. They have had no voice to speak out for them on behalf of an affordable place to live.

Then I began to ask what does government at all levels do for the poor and vulnerable in our midst. In Pinellas County against the total budget, I found it akin to that passage in the Gospel where Lazarus, the poor man, barely got scraps from the rich man's table. Penny for Pinellas had statutory authority to direct as much as 15 percent of its income to projects for economic development and related expenses, but only 1.5 percent was targeted. The county leadership could have moved monies around and into human services. They chose to tell the voters that monies had to be spent on bricks and mortar projects. In truth, they could have moved more dollars from the Penny into funds to serve people. I asked myself could we not do better?

A fair question is what is the bishop or the Catholic Church doing other than speaking against something. To assist the city of St. Petersburg I have with the concurrence of the Diocesan Finance Council earmarked $150,000 to help locate and administer temporary housing for the homeless. Other churches have made contributions from their membership to assist Catholic Charities in this program. The city has found an additional $150,000 for vouchers. Pinellas County as of this writing, despite promises to help, has contributed practically nothing, despite a budget surplus reserve of approximately $159-million. We are still waiting. I truly believe we Catholics are answering the call of the Gospel.

The angry rhetoric of certain county officials against my educational effort on Penny for Pinellas is both understandable and not unexpected. I forgive them for that, knowing that they worked hard to craft a package of allocations that was acceptable to all receiving political jurisdictions. Now if they can just convert that energy to creatively responding to the real social problems confronting our county and communities, everyone will have won last Tuesday.

At the annual FAST Nehemiah assembly on Monday night which I attended, one county commissioner present and two by letter, three mayors (one of whom was not present but was represented) and five Housing Authority representatives promised to begin addressing the low-cost/affordable housing situation quickly. The 30 churches, synagogues and temples of Pinellas County will continue to speak with one voice along with community organizing activities to saying that: We can do better. That's why I did what I did in attempting to raise public awareness through asking people to reflect on what they were truly saying in voting on the Penny for Pinellas renewal.

My political naivete can fairly be questioned. My Gospel mandate, however, can never be stilled. As St. Paul wrote, "Woe to me if I fail to preach the Gospel." The people of Pinellas (and my other counties) can expect to hear more from me in the future on human services.


[Last modified March 18, 2007, 09:56:57]

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