March 23, 2015. The Lakeland Ledger.

LAKELAND | One word stood in the way of agreement Monday between State Attorney Jerry Hill and a 2,000-strong crowd at the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment’s 15th annual Nehemiah Action rally for social justice.

Hill said he would “encourage” but not “ensure” the use of Polk County Teen Court as an alternative to arrest for children who commit first-time minor offenses.

“I don’t know the demeanors, the attitudes,” of the offenders, he said. “I don’t know the crime.”

If they had said “encourage,” he said, he would have answered yes.

Instead, he said no.

PEACE officials substituted “encourage” in a surprise re-questioning of Hill at the end of the meeting.

His answer changed from “no” to “absolutely” and the crowd that had given cold silence to his original answer voiced its approval.

Twenty-one churches from around Polk County were listed as bringing members to the event held at The Lakeland Center’s Youkey Theatre, during which PEACE asked public officials for “yes” or “no” answers to questions aimed at them.

The officials had been told in advance what the questions would be and had a limited time to explain “no” answers.

The topics this year were continued action on youth arrests, city involvement in expanding primary health care in Bartow and Haines City, and a first foray into getting more mental health services.

PEACE succeeded in getting support on two of the three, but got more “no” answers than yeses on mental health.

They asked Polk County Commission Chairman George Lindsey and Commissioner John Hall whether they thought Polk has a mental health crisis and whether they would take various steps to find funds for additional intensive treatment teams for people with severe mental issues.

The commissioners’ answers highlighted an issue PEACE hasn’t addressed this year: Whether voters will support continuing the half-cent sales tax for indigent health care. PEACE leaders want more of that money spent on mental health.

PEACE has not committed to campaigning for continuing the tax, as it campaigned for its initial passage in 2004.

“If this fails, there will be no more program,” Lindsey said. “It’s imperative the half-cent sales tax pass.”

Lindsey agreed the county has a mental health crisis, while Hall would only agree it has a problem. Neither would agree to instruct the county manager to find funding for those teams, which PEACE said could come from reserves in the indigent-care fund.

Those reserves may be needed, Hall said, if voters turn down continuing the sales tax in 2016. If the referendum fails then, a second vote could be held in 2018.

Authorization for the tax ends in 2019 unless voters re-approve it. Reserves could let a scaled down version last into 2020 and possibly a third vote, Hall said.

That wasn’t the answer PEACE hoped for, but its leaders said they will keep working with commissioners.

Parents Stephen Schaffer, with his wife, Debbie, and Jackie Grant spoke sadly of how their children, diagnosed with serious mental health disorders, had to go outside the county for help.

“There is a mental health crisis in this community,” Schaffer said. “Something needs to change.”

Sheriff Grady Judd, who worked with PEACE on arrest alternatives for three years, got loud support when he agreed to set “high expectations” that law enforcement will use the Teen Court database that is being created to ensure more youths are diverted to that alternative court for first time, minor offenses. In Teen Court, juvenile offenders are punished but do not have an arrest record.

Haines City Mayor Roy Tyler and Bartow City Commissioner Leo Longworth had an easier time on the hot seat than the county commissioners who followed them.

Asked whether they would direct their city managers to provide detailed lists of vacant buildings owned by their cities, they agreed and said they’d already acted on it.

“I have the list,” Longworth said.

PEACE officials said they will keep working to find a way those buildings might be used for primary care clinics.

Although Haines City does have a free volunteer clinic and some free services through the Florida Department of Health, Martin Medina of St. Ann Catholic Church spoke somberly of the need for care he hears about from residents of that area.

“Some of these people over and over tell me they were denied to get health care services because ‘You don’t have insurance,'” he said.

“Some of you prefer not to go to the doctor because you cannot afford it. … Thank you for sharing with me,” Medina said. “I bring it up because it touched my heart.”