County staff directed to pursue more research on timelines commission would need to adhere to in establishing a Mental Health Special District

Board members debate merits of options outlined in Sept. 23 staff report

Commissioner Michael Moran. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The effort to create a Mental Health Special District in Sarasota County took another step forward this week, as County Commissioner Michael Moran won the unanimous support of his colleagues to direct staff to research timelines to which the board would have to adhere in establishing such a district.

A staff report completed this week outlined three options for the commissioners to consider in regard to how such a district could function:

  • An independent district would have to be approved by county voters during a referendum, as it would have dedicated property tax revenue allocated to its operation. That was dubbed Option 1.
  • A dependent district could be established by the commissioners through adoption of an ordinance. The commission “would govern the district by setting the millage annually and would maintain full control of the budget,” the staff report said. “The revenue/expenditures of the established district would have its own fund within the County’s Budget. The Commission would determine annually the programs and services to be funded.” That was dubbed Option 2.
  • Finally, the report said that, through its annual budget process, the commission could increase its funding of mental health programs by increasing the county’s millage rate. No special district would have to be established, the report noted.

Based on the 2020 fiscal year taxable property values, a chart in the report showed how much money could be collected per tenth of a mil, plus the tax impact on a person who owns a home valued at $200,000. For example, 0.1 mills would mean an extra $20 in property tax per year, and it would raise $5,919,101. A tax rate of 0.5 mills would cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $100 a year, but it would raise $29,595,506.

This chart is included in the Sept. 23 staff report. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The report also noted that if the commission wanted to hold a referendum on Nov. 3, 2020, as part of the General Election — which, Moran stressed, would be his preference — the board would need to approve the ballot language no later than Aug. 14.

Moran brought up the staff report when he addressed his colleagues during the Board Reports section of their regular meeting on Sept. 24 in Sarasota.

His original motion that day focused on Option 1, as the staff report had provided details about getting a referendum on the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election ballot, if that were the desire of the commissioners.

Commissioner Alan Maio — who already had indicated a preference for Option 2 — said he would second the motion, but he added that he would prefer “more open” direction for staff.

Moran responded that he happily would withdraw the first motion and then rephrase it, so it the direction to staff would encompass “any timelines we need to meet” for each of the options.

Chair Charles Hines suggested that the information the board would receive be fodder for a discussion during the board’s retreat this year, when it typically sets priorities for the year ahead.

Commissioners made it clear that, in the next round of staff research on the issue, they also want more details about how the district would function.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

As Commissioner Nancy Detert put it, the commission needs facts about the organizations that already are providing mental health services to county residents. “I don’t want to get where they’re going to cost-shift everything over to us,” she said, “and then we’re supplanting rather than enhancing [their funding].”

The staff report provided several examples of programs that receive commission funding related to the functions of a Mental Health Special District. Among them are “[c]ertain elements of the contract with the Florida Department of Health,” as well as “[p]ortions of the jail budget for mental health care of inmates …”

For another example, Detert noted, a county program gets federal money to assist veterans. “How do we blend with the sources of revenue they already have?”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred. “How do we go forward without supplanting other budgets?”

Building on the research

Moran won his colleagues’ support on Aug. 27 to direct staff to research what would be involved in establishing a Mental Health Special District, as allowed under Florida Statute 154-331.

On Sept. 24, Moran referred to the “fantastic report” that staff had completed and issued the previous day. “It is flat-out just a starting point,” he added.

“I applaud you for taking on mental health,” Detert told Moran. “It should be one of our top three priorities.”

However, as she did in August, she again voiced concern about creating a new taxing body. “People “always want a dedicated source of revenue … and recurring funds,” she continued. Moreover, “Depending on how you set the millage, you don’t know if you have enough money or not enough for all these services, and no accountability.”

Additionally, Detert asked, “Who’s available to provide the service? That’s where the holes start to appear.”

The Sept. 23 staff report offers this information about the potential powers of a special district with an independent governing board. Image courtesy Sarasota County

She would prefer no referendum, Detert added, so people would have to keep coming back to the commission for funding for the district’s work.

Maio then voiced his preference for the dependent board, noting, as Detert had, that the commission would have “complete control over the budget.” Therefore, Maio said, if the commissioners proved to be unhappy with how the district was functioning, they could eliminate the funding for it. “I don’t want this to take on a life of its own and all of a sudden, it is a big amount of money.”

Moran pointed out that the state law does not limit the size of the governing board for the district. Gov. Ron DeSantis would make two appointments, Moran continued, but the commissioners could name as many people to an independent district board as they wished.

Reprising comments he made on Aug. 27, Chair Hines expressed support for the potential of the district to fund the 40-bed secured, residential treatment center the commission has approved for a three-year pilot program, as a jail diversion method. It would serve people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“This is where this idea [of the district] did kind of excite me,” Hines pointed out. “That’s where I’d like to go. … We really don’t have an identified funding source, other than the General Fund, [for that facility].”

Staff with the county’s Office of Financial Management often has pointed out that the General Fund, which is made up primarily of property tax revenue, is the most constrained account when it comes to covering county expenses. The General Fund pays for the operations of many of the constitutional officers’ departments, for example, such as the Sheriff’s Office and the Supervisor of Elections Office.

This graphic, shown to the commissioners on Aug. 21, provides information about the county’s Criminal Justice Commission’s ranking of jail diversion programs, including the new secured treatment facility the commission has approved on a pilot basis. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines also noted that by the time the commissioners could get the district established, they should have “excellent data” about how the new treatment facility is functioning.

“I think we easily could figure out what a budget for that [facility] could be,” Hines said.

“It’s just awesome input,” Moran responded to the comments. He is very eager, Moran added, to have the stakeholders for the district talk with the commissioners in a formal setting about how they would envision the work of the district.

Then he lobbied for Option 1, pointing out that he served on the board of directors of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) before his election to the commission. “It’s amazing the power [that board] had.” They had the opportunity to allocate the district’s property tax revenue in ways they felt would achieve the greatest impact, he said.

Moreover, Moran noted, “All [the SWFWMD staff members] are doing for a living is the mission of that district.”

Referring to the county staff report on the Mental Health Special District, Moran added, “My nervousness is that [a dependent board] would get more bogged down in the staffing issues …”

“The ultimate control [of an independent district],” he argued, “is we control the appointments to that board.”

“I would feel a lot more comfortable,” Maio said, “if all five of us sat on this district [board]. Other jurisdictions do that with airport authorities,” for example, Maio noted.

“I’m with Commissioner Maio,” Hines said, but he added that he was interested in learning more.

“The stakeholders need to have humongous say,” Moran replied, before the commission makes a decision on how to move forward.