More than 3,000 FAST supporters and public officials meet at Tropicana Field

Because the city didn't keep its promise, FAST asked County Commissioners John Morroni, Janet Long and Charlie Justice if they would commit to spending $5 million a year, for the next three years, on the trust. (Commission Chair Ken Welch wasn't present, but FAST officials said he attended last month's rally and committed to the pledge.)

Morroni said he already alerted county administrator Robert LaSala and the county staff about the proposal.

"I told them where I was going on this," he said, adding that it's crucial for the county to spend money now because, theoretically, prices will only go up in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The issue has been a bone of contention with certain Tea Party activists in Pinellas County, some of whom inaccurately said that such funding would go directly into FAST's coffers.

The issue of a local hiring ordinance has been an ongoing discussion at City Hall in St. Petersburg. Back in January, the proposal, which was amended from an earlier version, was dropped in lieu of having more discussions.

Bill Foster and City Council Chair Karl Nurse were asked three specific questions: Would they continue to attend the work group meetings to ensure that a strong local hiring ordinance be drafted? Would they continue to advocate that there is a clear benchmark for percentage of work hours to be completed by rehabilitated ex-offenders? Would they continue to move the process forward, and quickly, to ensure a final report by the end of next month?

Both men said "yes" to all three questions, though Nurse joked about how "quickly" government can do anything.

Mayor Foster, who had been in Tallahassee all day talking to legislators, went for an immediate crowd reaction, "Who says we can't sell out Tropicana Field?" he asked. The crowd offered a loud response even though audience members sat in folded chairs in the outfield, and not the stadium's roughly 34,000 seats.

"We will move this ordinance forward to incentivize all these contractors receiving taxpayer dollars," Foster said.

Next up was the most interesting part of the meeting: a public official brought on stage said "no" to the education question posed by FAST officials.

The topic was one that, to no avail, FAST has called on Pinellas County Schools to act on in the past. FAST wants to improve reading scores in the county through a program called Direct Instruction, a phonics-based method of reading in which students are taught to sound out letters to identify unfamiliar words. It's a method of reading that Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, an organization similar to FAST, has tried unsuccessfully to get installed in the Hillsborough School District for years.

FAST said that the National Institute for Direct Instruction, a nonprofit group that offers training to schools implementing Direct Instruction, would be willing to install it as a core curriculum in a pilot school at no cost to the district.

The response from Pinellas County School District Area Superintendent Barbara Hires was, "Respectively, not at this time."

Adding insult to injury for FAST was that the rejection didn't come from Superintendent Mike Greco, who said he couldn't attend the rally because of a previous engagement with some parents.

Hires' response did not go down well with the crowd, some of whom broke the admonition given at the beginning of the meeting to not boo if an official answered "no."

Hires' response also prompted FAST official Reverend Robert Ward from Mount Mariah Missionary Baptist Church to say, "We are very disappointed that Dr. Michael Greco would not even come to this gathering of over 3,000 parents and grandparents and did not send someone to speak on his behalf." (Hires was speaking on his behalf.)

The FAST officials agreed that if Greco couldn't come to the rally, they would go to him, specifically to the Pinellas school board meeting on April 2.

For the fourth and final issue, FAST called on the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services to expand dental services to an additional 15,000 adults that lack care.

Pinellas County Health Department Director Dr. Claude Dhamaraj and Community Health Centers of Pinellas' Joe Santini both affirmed to do that, with Santini mentioning that his organization is building a new dental facility in Clearwater that is scheduled to open in November.

  • The view from the stage at FAST's Nehemiah Action Assembly at Tropicana Field

For years, Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) has held huge annual rallies called Nehemiah Action Assemblies. Recently, more than 3,000 members gathered at Indian Rocks Beach Church, and this past Tuesday night, FAST officials raised the stakes by renting out Tropicana Field where they called on St. Pete and Pinellas elected officials to say "yes" or "no" to their carefully crafted policy statements.

There were four main topics on the agenda: affordable housing, jobs, education and healthcare, with specific policy requests under each category.

When it comes to affordable housing, FAST members want Pinellas County to live up to its 2007 promise that $30 million of the Penny for Pinellas tax will go toward the affordable housing land trust, with an allocation of $3 million a year for 10 years.


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