Weekend read: A conversation with Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch

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What is on the mind of a local county commissioner? As Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch begins the launch of his new campaign, Daphne Streets (Daphne can be reached at dts.streetmedia@gmail.com) had an opportunity to speak with him about a few things on his mind.

Homelessness in Pinellas County

My first familiarity with Commissioner Welch began in in context with his role on the Homeless Leadership Network (soon to be known as the Homeless Leadership Board). He has been involved in this initiative from the beginning and currently serves as its Chair.

The structure of countywide leadership addressing homeless issues is in the process of changing—a process that has taken about a year’s worth of planning, discussions and strategic reorganization. This change includes the joining of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless with the Homeless Leadership Network to form the Homeless Leadership Board.

A primary concern surrounding this change has to do with ensuring that providers in the community that deliver direct services to homeless populations have at least as much authority in the reorganized structure as the elected officials who also are involved.

“Providers have a strong voice. They are the experts,” said Welch. “Elected leadership changes over time while community providers often stay in our community for decades delivering services. The Homeless Leadership Network and the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless has worked together over the years to raise awareness of homelessness and develop programs.” Welch explained that he has seen the strength they have together—the providers and the elected officials. “Now, we’re joining even closer together to streamline our work [through the structure of the Homeless Leadership Board].”

Welch also discussed what he considers to be the most pressing concerns regarding homelessness in Pinellas County today. According to Welch, there are several. Rapid rehousing, increased housing for homeless families, addressing the needs of the increasing population of newly homeless to get them back into self-sufficiency as quickly as possible and a strong focus on homeless prevention services.

One recent development includes the utilization of local motels to help address housing issues. Welch said, “This was a resource brought up about four years ago, and now it’s happening organically.” Welch cited the St. Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times) coverage of the Mosley Hotel in St. Petersburg.

What Welch considers to be the wisest move by the County Commission in addressing homelessness is its focus on homeless prevention and providing emergency dollars for those on the brink of homelessness. Among other successful accomplishments in addressing homelessness Welch mentioned included the development of Safe Harbor with the centralized services available on-site leading to placement in Pinellas Hope.

The St. Petersburg Pier

I also spoke with Commissioner Welch about the hot topic within the City of St. Petersburg about the St. Petersburg Pier. The Lens design is officially the leader pertaining to what the new St. Petersburg Pier will look like. Welch says that he made a motion for the Lens, saying, “The Lens makes sense, to move retail closer inland due to proximity to activity.”

However, Welch received some criticism when he proposed a public hearing where the community can have a directed opportunity to have a voice on a project of this size and expense. “A decision this big, spanning 75 years, costing $50 million, the public should weigh in on this.”

Welch’s critics on this topic state that the public had ample opportunity to speak their mind, and now a decision is needed. Welch agreed that the public had opportunities regarding the concept, yet at a community meeting Welch held with his constituents, he reported, “Many said that they want more input throughout the development of a project this great in scope and time. There are cost issues. This isn’t the only option. Other options include rebuilding the approach. Yes, a decision needs to be made. We cannot only keep discussing, but a public hearing makes sense.”

Spotlight on Pinellas County public transportation

Welch said that another hot topic in Pinellas County right now circles around public transportation initiatives. “Expanded bussing and the potential of a local light rail system are important issues for the County.”

Regarding bussing, utilization has been examined with plans to eliminate the least productive routes and to deploy smaller, more fuel efficient busses that better reflect the County’s needs.

As for light rail, expect to see much more in-depth discussion on this topic. The County already has conducted a $4 million study paid for through state and federal Department of Transportation grant funds. The estimated cost for this system is between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion. A penny tax is being considered by the county as one possible option to pay for the project if it ever gets a green light.

There are significant positive monetary projections regarding light rail in Pinellas, according to the study. An estimated $4.2 billion would go into Pinellas, boasting a return on investment of $2.50 for every $1 of cost. This is combined with benefits of producing tens of thousands of jobs, the potential of $1 billion in business investments and the lure of a functional transit system that many businesses consider as a weighted priority before deciding to set up in a particular community.

While Welch is in support of the project so far, it has its critics, including commissioners Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield, and Norm Roche. Also some Tea Party members who opposed the recent Hillsborough County light rail project are now voicing their opposition here in Pinellas. 

Commissioner Welch up for re-election

Commissioner Kenneth Welch recently launched his campaign for re-election on the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, representing District 7. He has been elected to the County Commission from District 7 in 2000, 2004 and 2008 consecutively.

In addition to serving on the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner Welch also serves on the Board of Directors of the Florida Association of Counties, Pinellas County Business Technology Services Board, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization, Pinellas Health & Human Services Coordinating Council, Pinellas Homeless Leadership Network (Chair), Florida DCF Substance Abuse & Mental Health Advisory Council, and other local, state and national organizations.

Yet, with all of his accomplishments, Commissioner Welch is not without opposition. At least two individuals are slated to run against him in the District 7 election, and so Welch’s campaign is moving forward in full-force.

Welch said, “District 7 is where I grew up. It’s my home, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I have to earn trust and votes, and that is what I try to do every day.”

To this end, Welch organizes monthly “Community Office Hours” that are in his district so that the people don’t have to travel all the way to the county building to speak with him. Through these meetings with the public, Welch has learned much and acted on many issues to strengthen the community, including increasing basic services such as access to fire hydrants, park and recreation enhancements, transportation concerns, housing and homeless issues and economic and community development.

Welch also is the only Democrat and minority currently sitting on the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners. While this alone may not be very significant, there is a significant need for diversity within an elected body to ensure fair representation for the people and their diverse opinions and needs.

Many argue that a change in leadership also is important for diversity and to prevent stagnation. Another argument rests with the importance of long-term established relationships and trust sustained with the people to get things done, serving as a conduit between the public and the political red tape.

Whatever the answer may be, may the best candidate win to help Pinellas County move forward.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.