Interfaith group makes annual requests
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04/21/09 Amy Beeman
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Nearly 2,000 people from 35 interfaith congregations met in Largo on Monday night at the Indian Rocks Baptist Church. The annual meeting of Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST), was called to address problems in Pinellas County and commit to working on solutions.

Clergy members from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish houses of worship led the discussion on issues affecting Pinellas County. They called on school board and county and city officials to commit to working toward solutions.

School discipline, affordable housing, neighborhood violence and assimilating repeat offenders back into society were the issues FAST brought to the table. The Rev. R. Williams of Mt. Olive AME stated the issues.

The Rev. Todd Sutton of Lakeview Presbyterian said that discipline is a major problem in public schools. He said teachers have to spend so much of their time dealing with disciplinarian problems that students’ educations are suffering.

Among the group’s goals was that eight more schools in the county incorporate the discipline programs that 37 Pinellas County Schools have already implemented.

Deputy Superintendent Dr. Harry Brown agreed to evaluating the ongoing programs, keeping the lines of communication open and designating a liaison to report to FAST on a quarterly basis.

Dr. Brown did not agree however, to implement the program to eight more schools, saying schools need to be responsible for their own discipline plans.

FAST also addressed the problem some Pinellas County residents are having with affordable housing. They said many are forced to pay half of their incomes toward their homes, leaving little left to cover all other necessities.

FAST asked Pinellas County Commissioners Calvin D. Harris, John Morroni, and Kenneth T. Welch, along with St. Petersburg City Council members Wengay Newton, Karl Nurse and Jeff Danner, Largo Mayor Patricia Gerard and Clearwater Mayor Frank V. Hibbard to commit to advocate for $5 million from the 2009-2010 budget to go into an affordable trust fund for housing in Pinellas County.

They also asked that the officials reaffirm their commitment to make 10 percent of housing affordable for those making less than $16,000. Finally they requested that a countywide plan for a phone system be created to help those in need find affordable housing.

All officials agreed to each commitment, except for Mayor Hubbard, who declined to reaffirm his commitment to designate 10 percent of Clearwater’s housing for lower income families. He said he only declined because it was unrealistic that the housing would be ready by 2010.

St. Petersburg Sheriff Jim Coats was at the meeting to answer the requests of FAST regarding drug and crime activity, racial profiling and repeat offenders.

FAST acknowledged improvements in some active crime spots around the county, but highlighted the tragic shooting death of an 8-year-old girl in St. Petersburg as an example that more must be done. St. Petersburg resident Mary Harvard spoke of the need for continued policing in high crime neighborhoods.

The issue of racial profiling was raised as well. Hispanic residents in Clearwater are saying that they are being pulled over or harassed by police when they are innocent of any wrong doing. Clearwater Sheriff Sid Kline did not attend the meeting.

FAST described the problems of not rehabilitating repeat offenders, saying they often lack skills to re-assimilate into the civilized world, causing them to return to crime. According to FAST, repeat offenders cost tax payers $17.3 million a year.

Sheriff Coats agreed to working with FAST toward implementing an inmate assessment process and strategies for all inmates sentenced to at least 60 days in jail. He promised jail counselors would use the assessments to refer inmates to in-jail programs to help them re-assimilate to the outside world.

FAST’s next large assembly meeting will be held on Oct. 26.

Click on the link for more information or to become involved with FAST.

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