By Rachel Christian
Local leaders voiced concern and ultimately rejected a $1 million informal budget request Monday night for a one-stop Osceola County community crisis center.
The center was first proposed last summer by County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry
to assist local homeless individuals and working poor families by providing things like showers, warm meals, career resources and other assistance in a single “one-stop shop” location, supporters say.
Choudhry however, failed to gain support from other commissioners.
Since then, she has mobilized supporters at a series of public meetings that culminated at the county administrative building Monday night.
But officials still found fault allocating $1 million for a one-year pilot program, citing the center’s lack of a formal business plan.
“We sat here and asked the sheriff to cut approximately $4 million from his budget so we could meet expenses for our employees,” Commission Chair Fred Hawkins Jr. said in reference to a budget request meeting held earlier that day. “I don’t think we’re going to find a million dollars in the budget, I can tell you that.”
Officials implored Choudhry to explore private funding and donation options before requesting seed money for the center.
“I would love to see you guys get it off the ground, then come back through the grant process that we do for a lot of nonprofits,” said Commissioner Brandon Arrington.
Comments from elected officials followed 15 residents who provided nearly an hour of public comment in favor of the idea.
The group included pastors, nonprofit leaders, a city official, a legal consultant and volunteers from the United Way.
Many asked commissioners to open their hearts and give the center a chance.
Others, including City Commissioner Wanda Rentas, criticized the board for failing to listen to constituents.
“Shame on you for keeping your head down while people are speaking,” said Rentas, a Republican vying for the same county seat as current Democrat commissioner Viviana Janer later this year in the election. “I will tell you that the election is coming, and you will be defeated.”
Only one resident voiced concerns, which centered around giving secular tax payer money to a center that includes religious leaders and groups.
“I am suggesting that fundamental differences, both subtle and overt, exist between the very nature of parties possibly cooperating on such a project,” said Kissimmee resident Jean Olsen. “Agreeing on the greatness of the need and sharing help does not magically erase those differences.”
Commissioners Cheryl Grieb and Janer, both up for re-election in November, did not comment on the item.
The one-stop center didn’t appear as a formal item on the agenda, despite taking up a bulk of the Monday night meeting. Instead, all comments took place during the “Hear the Audience” section – a time when no motions are made or votes taken.
“I was told by the county manager that it couldn’t be made an agenda item because none of the other commissioners supported it,” Choudhry said after the meeting. “They weren’t willing to allocate any staff time to research the center any further.”
Hawkins said during the meeting that if Choudhry gained solid financial backing from local businesses, the commission would “maybe be more willing” to put staff time into the effort.
Despite this latest defeat, Choudhry said she plans to continue fighting for the center alongside supporters.
She plans to re-group this month and focus efforts on obtaining grants and donations from businesses. She also said funding may be available through the offices of politicians, such as Congressman Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) and State Rep. John Cortes (D-Kissimmee), who have voiced support for the idea.
“This just confirmed that my fellow commissioners will never support this,” Choudhry said after the meeting. “Their answer may have been no, but the solution is still out there.”