Last Thursday, St. Petersburg City Council unanimously approved a resolution that will increase funding for St. Pete’s new Community Assistance Life and Liaison (CALL) program, which dispatches unarmed social service responders to nonviolent 911 calls instead of police.
With this resolution, the council also approved a two-year contract renewal with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (GCJFCS), the Clearwater nonprofit that currently runs the program, as well as an additional $136,624.87 annually, for a total annual budget of $1.269 million.
According to Gulf Coast, this increase in funding will be used to hire a new clinical Assistant Program Director, cover equipment costs for the new hire, pay for employee travel costs, and provide a 3% wage increase for CALL staff—to remain competitive, and in recognition of the rising cost of living in the Tampa Bay metro area.
“We recognize now, more than ever, the workforce—it’s competitive,” Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Coast, Terri Balliet, who oversees the crisis responder program, said in the meeting. “We have to step up our game.”
St. Pete’s CALL program, which works in partnership with the St. Pete Police Department, has responded to over 3,000 calls since February of this year, when the program first launched. As of Aug. 1, more than 60% of those initial contacts successfully resulted in at least one follow-up visit for social or mental health services, coordinated by CALL staff.
Since May, unarmed crisis responders with CALL, referred to as navigators, have responded to a range of nonviolent 911 calls—such as mental health calls, calls about the city’s homeless population, “disorderly” youth, and domestic issues—without St. Pete police. According to Gulf Coast, 93% of all calls have been met with an independent response, without the need for navigators to call for police backup.
The remaining 7%, Gulf Coast says, were Baker Act situations—that is, a situation in which a person is deemed at imminent risk for suicide or homicide. In those situations, Balliet said, CALL navigators would need law enforcement to transport those individuals to a Baker Act receiving facility for a psychological examination and involuntary hospitalization for up to 72 hours, per Florida law.
“As a reminder, CALL uses our own personal vehicles,” Balliet said, “And so, in some situations, we do need law enforcement assistance.”
Even so, Gulf Coast shared that the CALL program has, as of this month, exceeded program outcomes for the first fiscal year of its operation. For instance, surpassing its goal of diverting at least 50% of its 911 calls from either a crisis unit, hospital, or police response. According to Gulf Coast, they did this and more: 73% of calls were diverted with the remaining 27%, they say, generally consisting of situations that required a Baker Act or Marchman Act (the substance misuse equivalent of the Baker Act, essentially).
To explain this, Balliet provided a specific (and content warning: fairly disturbing) example of a local resident CALL staff came across very recently with a hoarding issue. According to Balliet, when CALL navigators responded to the call, they found the resident’s home infested with rats. Those rats, she said, were literally “eating away” at the resident, leaving him with bruises and other wounds. “We had to take him to the hospital,” Balliet said. “That was a situation where we could not divert.”
But they’ve also had a lot of success stories. One woman, for instance, described by Balliet as a “high-need high utilizer” of the SPPD’s services, was able to build a strong rapport with CALL’s Program Director, Travis Atchinson. Atchinson, she said, was able to coordinate mental health treatment for the woman through the Suncoast Center, one of the CALL program’s community health partners.
Before connecting with the CALL program, Balliet says this person had reached out to the St. Pete Police Department 110 times within the span of a single week. With the assistance of CALL, the woman was able to receive a clinical diagnosis, follow-up services, and treatment coordination. After that contact, Balliet says the SPPD saw a 97% reduction in calls from the individual. “That’s significant,” said Balliet. And added, “She’s doing much better.”
St. Pete Assistant Police Chief Antonio Gilliam, who has been closely involved with the development and implementation of the CALL program, shared his own appreciation for the CALL program—particularly its ability to coordinate follow-up for people with mental health issues who do not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization under the Baker Act.
“Once you leave that home, that is often the end of the story,” said Gilliam. Law enforcement, he said, don’t have the ability to spend the amount of time that CALL navigators do to help those individuals. “That’s why we’re happy when they respond,” Gilliam said, of the CALL program staff. “They’re able to spend more time and do more follow-up.”
After Gulf Coast’s presentation, several councilmembers chimed in to offer praise for the program and ask questions about the request for additional funding and the program’s operation.
City Council member Robert Blackmon, who’s running a controversial campaign to become St. Pete’s next mayor, said one thing that really “popped out” to him from the presentation was the success of CALL’s independent response. “Over 3,000 contacts and no public safety concerns,” said Blackmon, a Republican who’s listed “fighting crime” as a top issue of his mayoral campaign. “I know that was a huge concern of mine,” he admitted, adding, “That is excellent news.”
Blackmon went on to ask for a specific breakdown of where the extra funding for the CALL program would go. Gulf Coast COO, Terri Balliet, shared that employee travel expenses—that is, the mileage accumulated through 911 dispatch—makes up about $15,500 of the total increase. About $71,000 would cover the salary and benefits of the new Assistant Program Director, $2,100 for the new hire’s equipment, and $22,000 would go toward providing increased wages for staff—to prevent high turnover and remain competitive, Balliet argued.
Balliet told CL over the phone that the rest of the funding will go towards additional costs such as professional liability insurance and workers' comp, recruiting and marketing costs, office supplies, and federal administrative costs.According to Assistant Police Chief Gilliam, the additional funding for CALL would be a general fund increase “above the recommended budget for police” that would “not take away from any funding toward law enforcement efforts.”
Here's a breakdown of how the additional funds will be used in regard to St. Petersburg's unarmed responder CALL
- $71,920 (new admin position)
- $22,896 ( increased wages)
- $15,502.02 (travel costs)
- $2,123 new hire equipment (new hire)
- $1,792.20 professional liability insurance and workers comp
- $3,190 recruiting and marketing cost and CALL shirts
- $1,000 office supplies for all staff
- $18,201 federal admin cost
The CALL program, Balliet of Gulf Coast underscored during Thursday’s City Council meeting, “is not defunding the police.” Nor will it stop the hiring of new St. Pete police officers, she said, evidently referring to the fact that CALL’s original budget comes from city funds originally earmarked to match a COPS hiring grant last year.
“CALL is freeing up officers to focus on crime and violence,” Balliet said. “It was also an investment in resources to handle mental health, homeless, and quality of life issues.”
City Council member Darden Rice, another candidate in this year’s mayoral race, also lauded the CALL program’s success thus far.
“I think of it [the budget increase] as an investment in the people in our community,” said Rice. “People who are vulnerable, people who are suffering...whether it's a temporary crisis or a more ongoing chronic situation, I think doing this is effective and necessary.”
Council member Amy Foster, who will be vacating her District 8 seat due to term limits come January, said she also supported the budget increase, particularly raising wages for the CALL program staff. She noted, however, that many of St. Pete’s social programs that operate similarly to CALL—including Social Action Funding and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs—don’t get wage increases year after year.
“I fully support that,” said Foster, of the proposed wage increase, “But I wanted to bring that to everybody's attention. That, you know, costs continue to rise and funding has to increase to go along with that.”
Last September, the initial contract for the CALL program’s nine-month pilot period, totaling $850,000 for the fiscal year of 2021, became a point of concern for local activists who’d pushed for the creation of a non-police crisis responder program during last summer’s racial justice protests.
Last Thursday, Gulf Coast’s status report also revealed the downfalls of the pilot’s meager budget, intentional or not. That is, while the program currently staffs a Program Director, three clinical supervisors, and 12 CALL navigators, the Clearwater nonprofit says they’ve taken it upon themselves to hire four additional field specialists—outside of the CALL budget—capable of relieving their clinical staff and navigators. “We expect our staff to take time off. We’re all about the self-care,” said Chief Operating Officer Terri Balliet.
The resolution was approved by all eight members of St. Pete City Council on Thursday, with no votes against. With this, Gulf Coast’s contract with the city of St. Pete—and the proposed budget of $1,269,624 annually—has been renewed for two years, through September 30, 2023.
The pilot period for the CALL program, which functions as something like a test-run for CALL, runs through the end of this September, at which time there will be additional data to share regarding the program’s progress and outreach in the community.
UPDATED 08/25/21 11 a.m. Updated with comments and budget breakdown from Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Coast, Terri Balliet.
Send anonymous news tips to [email protected]. Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team works tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.