March 8, 2016. The Lakeland Ledger.

LAKELAND — Energized by some 2,000 of Polk County’s most vocal constituents, a handful of city and county officials have agreed to move forward on increasing access to health care.

Included in several commitments made during Monday night’s meeting of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment was a willingness to create a primary care clinic to serve the uninsured in Haines City and Poinciana.

The money to fund a clinic likely would come from a mix of local, state and federal dollars.

Jonathan Evans, the city manager of Haines City, agreed Monday to chair an exploratory committee comprised of health-care officials to start a dialogue on using the vacant downtown Cromer’s Building for a health clinic.

“I’m ready to get to work now,” he said to wild applause. “Certainly this is an important issue. … A failing health-care system is a domestic threat. This takes a team effort.”

The organization known as PEACE, composed of thousands of people representing 20 churches, also received measured assurances of an expansion of services for people with severe and persistent mental health illnesses.

Monday’s occasion at The Lakeland Center serves as an annual call to action, putting elected and appointed leaders under the spotlights. Told of the agenda in advance, officials listen to impassioned testimonials about priority issues, then are pressed to answer pointed questions in a yes-or-no format.

Three county commissioners — John Hall, George Lindsey and Ed Smith — said they will support the addition of a third Florida Assertive Community Treatment team for adults, and a second Community Action Team for children.

Their approval came with one large caveat — that voters pass a referendum this fall to renew the half-cent sales tax for indigent health care.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote Oct. 6 to put the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. If the referendum fails, a second vote could be held in 2018.

Authorization for the tax ends in 2019, and some commissioners continue to balk at dipping into reserves in the indigent-care fund to create additional intensive treatment mental health teams.

“The funding that’s there right now has already been dedicated,” Hall said to Monday night’s crowd. “It may be moot if the indigent sales tax does not pass.”

Organizers of the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly chided commissioners Melony Bell and Todd Dantzler for their absence. The Rev. Ronnie Clark, pastor of Hurst Chapel AME Church in Winter Haven, said Bell showed poor judgment in scheduling hand surgery on Monday, while Dantzler “simply chose not to attend for a second year in a row.”

State Attorney Jerry Hill garnered some heat for skipping out on Monday’s meeting, though organizers said he had a prior commitment and instead has agreed to meet with PEACE representatives on March 17.

The group hopes to convince Hill to streamline a process for diverting all first-time juvenile offenders of minor offenses to a diversion program known as Teen Court. While progress has been made, PEACE contends that hundreds of children continue to be arrested for silly infractions.

To reinforce the message to Hill, PEACE has scheduled a prayer vigil for 6 p.m. on March 16 at Fort Blount Park near the county courthouse in downtown Bartow.