Seemingly leading with his heart, Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz is advocating more action by the city to address the intractable problem of downtown homelessness. It's an issue he understands first-hand.

Six months ago, during a presentation by school district officials — who stated that nearly 3,900 homeless children attend public schools throughout Polk County — the mayor shared that he had sheltered in his own house a homeless family of five for the past 18 months. At that gathering, Mutz pledged to seek ways to help these families, by, among other ideas, consulting with housing experts to locate 500 housing units over the next five years.

More recently, Mutz determined that action was needed on a proposal from a city-hired consultant that had studied the downtrodden residing on downtown streets.

Regarding that, Mutz lobbied the rest of the City Commission during a recent budget hearing for $195,000 to launch the four pieces of the consultant's 25 initiatives that had passed muster with the city's Homeless Initiative Steering Committee. As The Ledger reported, the money would fund two street-level caseworkers who would be employed by a nonprofit or private organization; provide rental assistance for 25 single adults deemed the best candidates to get back on their feet; and make transportation available via Citrus Connection, Polk County's public transportation agency. Private sources, whether businesses or charities, would be expected to kick in an additional $105,000 to achieve lift-off.

"We’re going to see how it works and how the results are," Mutz told the board. "It’s not a desire to expand (the government workforce), but it is a desire to accomplish what the city has asked us to do." He added that the commission could pull the plug if the results were lackluster.

Yet the mayor found himself marooned on a political island, population one.

Objections from reluctant commissioners, expressed at that meeting and an earlier one, focused on whether this is an appropriate role for city government; or even if it is, whether the scope and costs would escalate beyond the original package; or that the opportunity cost was too great by trading this budget item for something else the city might require.

These are valid and understandable arguments. Too often the tendency for those immersed in a particular, seemingly unsolvable problem is to see government as the first resort. Moreover, whether in Washington, Tallahassee, or a city hall around Polk County, government is highly susceptible to mission creep. And a government program, once begun, is difficult, if not impossible, to kill, even if it performs poorly.

Commissioners were right to be cautious, or perhaps skeptical.

Yet Mutz should not give up, because he is correct on two points he expressed to The Ledger.

First, if the board does nothing, then the consultant's work, which cost nearly half the amount he's asking for, and the taxpayers' money that funded it are simply wasted. The mayor is also correct that taxpayers already absorb other costs of homelessness — policing their areas, housing scofflaw vagrants at the jail, or providing medical care. It makes sense to move people, even if it's just some of them, out of this situation.

Perhaps an observation by the consultant, the Florida Housing Coalition, would help the rest of the City Commission to see Mutz's point.

"The City of Lakeland is enjoying considerable economic development and investment, particularly in its downtown. New businesses are moving in, vacancy rates are dropping, and City and regional residents increasingly patronize downtown events and businesses. This is an unqualified success and is appropriately celebrated by City leadership. At the same time, Lakeland residents and business owners are increasingly concerned with the externalities of unaddressed homelessness, particularly concerns with safety and the perception of conspicuous homelessness in the City’s public spaces," the coalition noted.

"Eventually," the report adds, "the problems associated with unaddressed homelessness become unavoidable and the shortcomings of an unsustainable and ineffective homeless services delivery system are exposed."

The consultant nailed how marvelous downtown Lakeland's rebound has been, and the bright future ahead. We must keep that momentum going. Consequently, business owners downtown understand, and have expressed, the risk homelessness poses to their prosperity. Lakeland really does not want to trend toward San Francisco. With another budget hearing set for Sept. 20, let's not table this discussion just yet.