Elected leaders in Hillsborough County were in the hot seat Monday night, asked to commit on the spot to action on community issues.
More than 1,000 members of the interfaith group Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE) asked officials for commitments on expanding the civil citation program, creating a local affordable housing trust fund and increased funding for elder care services. The event was part of the groups 2018 Nehemiah Action.
When asked, Hillsborough public defender Julianne Holt, Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta and State Attorney Andrew Warren said they will support extending the county's civil citation program to include second and third misdemeanor offenses by minors.
Warren said the civil citation program, which allows police to issue a citation rather than making an arrest, has so far helped at-risk youth get help and avoid having a criminal record.
"So long as I am the state attorney we are committed to these intelligent reforms to keep kids out of the downward spiral of our system," Warren told the crowd.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and a representative from the Tampa Police Department did not immediately commit to an expanded use of civil citations.
When officials agreed to the actions requested by the group, they would clap. When they declined to offer a clear 'Yes', the packed auditorium of the Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrolwood remained silent. Hillsborough County Commissioners Victor Crist and Pat Kemp received raucous applause, giving full-throated support to the creation of a county-level affordable housing trust fund. They agreed to direct county staff to identify possible funding sources and insure the county commission votes on creating a fund this year.
Kemp said that she supported a large and regular commitment by the county to affordable housing, but that won't be enough to deal with the problem.
"In the Tampa Bay area we have an affordable housing crisis, but without the bigger dollars, the state and federal dollars that keep getting cut, I don't think there's any way we can deal with the magnitude of this crisis," she said.
The other members of the seven-member Board of County Commissioners declined an invitation to attend the event and face questions on affordable housing.
On increased funding for elder care services, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill would only commit to keeping the funding steady at $1.5 million. He said, however, that he would push for doubling funding as the county goes through its budget-making process.
Father John Tapp, co-president of HOPE, said he was pleased with the commitments made by officials Monday night, but said the organization will continue to meet regularly with officials and show up at county board meetings.
"We always want our congregation be there and advocate for what is right at just and that is affordable, decent places for people to live," he said. "We don't want to drive people from our county, we want our county to thrive."