Commissioners also agree to appointment of task force of ‘subject matter experts’ to assist with process
With three votes this week, the Sarasota County Commission moved forward with plans for their oversight of a dedicated funding stream to provide more services to persons with mental health and substance abuse problems.
Working with consultant Heather J. Encinosa, a partner with the law firm of Nabors Giblin & Nickerson (which has offices in Tampa, Tallahassee and Plantation), the commissioners agreed that they wanted to create a dependent Mental Health Care Special District that would be funded by county property tax revenue.
They also voted to authorize the advertisement of a public hearing on an ordinance that will be crafted to create that district. Encinosa indicated that the hearing would be conducted in June.
Additionally, on a motion by Commissioner Nancy Detert, the board members unanimously agreed that county Health Officer Chuck Henry, who also heads up the county’s Health and Human Services Department, should lead a task force of “subject matter experts” — as the commissioners put it — to undertake an assessment of gaps in mental health and substance abuse services in the county.
Commissioner Michael Moran — who first brought up the idea of the Mental Health Care Special District in 2019 — agreed with Detert’s recommendation regarding Henry. Moran added that Henry could work with “five or six super, super smart people” with expertise in mental health and substance abuse issues.
Moran was the first to propose a task force, which he stressed would be temporary, to undertake an “overall analysis of our systems now … maybe even with a consultant [to help guide the work].”
Moran asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis at one point whether staff could get a report from the advisory board members by the time of the commission’s June budget workshops.
“By June?” Lewis responded. “I don’t think I could have [that board’s work] done by the end of July,” which is when he would expect to have final budget decisions made, Lewis said. The annual public hearings on each fiscal year budget are conducted in September.
However, Lewis continued, he felt that by the time the money dedicated to the district began to come in — in January 2022 — he would have the task force’s report in hand for the commissioners to consider.
Detert also suggested to Lewis that staff ask the lobbyists who represent the county at both the state and federal levels to propose members for the task force, as the lobbyists would know persons who are “plugged in” when it comes to allocations of mental health services funding from those higher levels of government.
Lewis told the board members that staff would create a framework for the task force and provide it to them for their review. Moreover, Lewis pointed out, given all of Henry’s work with the COVID-19 pandemic — including the ongoing vaccination process and the new Emergency Rental Assistance Program that launched this week — “We will provide him the resources he needs to be successful [with that task force].”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler voted against the creation of the district and the advertisement of the ordinance.
During a March 23 board discussion about establishing a Mental Health Care Special District, Ziegler voiced concerns about the potential of a county millage rate increase to pay for extra services.
“There are a lot of mental health issues in this community,” he acknowledged, especially given the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
Yet, Ziegler pointed out, when he ran for his seat in 2018, he promised no increase in taxes. “I take that seriously …”
He also expressed concern about what he called “tax fatigue,” noting the extra millage county residents are paying as a result of the $65 million bond referendum voters approved in 2018 for the North Extension and the North Port connector for The Legacy Trail (see the related article in this issue). Further, Ziegler noted the Sarasota County School Board’s plans for another referendum in March 2022 to try to keep a special tax in place that raises about $60 million per year for the school district; the funds support a variety of programs that the district could not afford otherwise. (Ziegler’s wife, Bridget, is a member of the School Board.)
Before the May 4 commission discussion began, Commissioner Moran told his colleagues, “I think we just recognize the need for this [initiative],” to ensure service providers have the funds to help people with problems. One primary question, he continued, is “How do you most efficiently and best pay for it?” Moran added, “This board has never been shy [about] having political courage for some of these difficult discussions.”
Working through the decision-making process
Attorney Encinosa, who has been working with the Office of the County Attorney, used a series of slides to show the commissioners their options for a Mental Health Care Special District, as provided in state law.
If the board members chose to proceed with creating a dependent district, as allowed under Florida Statute 189.02, Encinosa said, then they themselves could serve as the governing body, or they could appoint such a group to oversee the work of the district.
Moreover, she explained, if the commissioners opted for a dependent special district, then they would not have to conduct a voter referendum to provide a funding stream for mental health and substance abuse services. However, she added, if, in the future, the commissioners wished to establish an independent district that had the authority to levy a millage rate to bring in the money, they would have to conduct a referendum.
In what he characterized as “my perfect world,” Moran told his colleagues that he would like to see the dependent district designed in a fashion that would enable them to allow it to transition to an independent nature, perhaps in 10 years. He noted the potential of allocating special funds to its operations, referring to the recent Purdue Pharma offer involving billions of dollars to settle multiple lawsuits related to the opioid epidemic. Moran indicated that the county might get some of that money, for example.
As the May 4 discussion turned to a focus on financing the extra county services, commissioners debated the best approach.
During their March 24 budget workshop, Moran asked County Administrator Lewis and Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho to “build in” one-tenth of a mill of funding for mental health services as they create the General Fund model for the next fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.
The General Fund is the “pot” into which property tax revenue is placed, along with other types of revenue, such as money shared by the state. The General Fund pays for the operations of many county departments, as well as offices of constitutional officers such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections. It also is the source to which commissioners look when they need money for an undertaking that cannot be funded another way.
At one point on May 4, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger suggested the potential of setting aside one-tenth of the property tax revenue in the 2022 fiscal year for mental health and substance abuse services.
Lewis pointed out that one-tenth of a mill would add up to approximately $6.5 million from property owners countywide.
“There is not just an extra 6-and-a-half million [dollars] floating around in there,” Chair Alan Maio stressed of the FY 2022 budget model he had seen. “There’s not going to be $6.5 million without a millage increase. So there; I said it.”
However, Maio indicated that the board members could ask staff to set aside a smaller amount of the property tax revenue; for example, the equivalent of 0.08 mills.
Commissioner Detert talked about the potential of putting $3.5 million of the ad valorem revenue into “a separate reserve account” for mental health and substance abuse services.
During that part of the discussion, Commissioner Moran pointed out that the board’s series of annual budget workshops, to fine-tune spending plans for the next fiscal year, are scheduled for late June. The commissioners could take the necessary time during those sessions, he said, to discuss how to fund the extra services.
The budget workshops are set for June 22, June 23 and June 25; however, in years past, the commissioners have worked to conclude their discussions within two days.