Culverhouse offers to contribute funding to United Way Suncoast for two years to continue 211 helpline

County commission majority directs county administrator to contact Palmer Ranch developer to work out details

This banner about the 211 helpline is shown on the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center website.

In September 2023, after reorganizing the process for awarding grants for human and behavioral health services, the Sarasota County Commission declined to provide $109,381 to United Way Suncoast, which has offices in Lakewood Ranch and Tampa, to continue the 211 helpline for residents.

That action came in spite of the county’s Health Services Advisory Council recommending the allocation.

Without the county money, United Way Suncoast’s 211 system was set to cease operations in Sarasota County by April 1.

Commissioner Mark Smith, who had advocated for the funding, had included an item under his board report for the commission’s regular meeting on March 19, seeking sufficient support from his colleagues to keep the helpline functioning by going ahead and providing the $109,381.

However, in addressing his colleagues that morning, Smith explained that he had received an email from Palmer Ranch developer Hugh Culverhouse Jr. on Saturday, March 16. Culverhouse had volunteered to provide the money for 211 for this year and next year, as noted in the email directed to Smith.

Culverhouse wrote, “I believe in the program, but respect the commission.”

Along with helming the creation of Palmer Ranch over three decades, Culverhouse has served as an assistant U.S. attorney, “handling complex cases for the Southern District of Florida, and as a trial attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission in its division of enforcement,” a recent news release about his philanthropic efforts in support of the Church of the Redeemer in downtown Sarasota pointed out.

After reading the email aloud, Smith said that he would like the other commissioners’ agreement to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to contact Culverhouse and figure out how best to make the proposed contributions a reality.

“I appreciate [this],” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger responded. Nonetheless, Cutsinger asked whether it would be appropriate for the board members to ask administrative staff to get involved. Should the county be put “in the middle?” as Cutsinger put it.

Hugh Culverhouse Jr. Contributed photo

If he were authorized to contact Culverhouse, Lewis said, he would ask whether Culverhouse would be willing to make the contribution directly to United Way Suncoast. Nonetheless, Lewis added, if Culverhouse wanted the county to be involved, Lewis still would try to make the contribution happen.

Cutsinger replied that he would prefer no county involvement in the process.

Then Commissioner Neil Rainford noted an exchange that he had that morning during the Open to the Public period for comments.

Bronwyn Beightol, chief impact officer with United Way Suncoast, was one of three people who asked the commissioners to provide the $109,381 for this year, noting that 211 serves as a lifeline for the public.

Last year, she pointed out, “More than 16,000 calls, chats and emails from Sarasota County community members” came in on 211. Those contacts, she added, resulted in “nearly 19,000 referrals made to food resources, housing and shelter,” mental health support and other forms of services.

Rainford told Beightol that one of his District 3 constituents had asked whether the 211 operators refer people to Planned Parenthood.

“Yes,” Beightol replied.

Noting her use of the word “lifeline,” Rainford told his colleagues, “I just found that interesting,” that 211 would refer callers to Planned Parenthood.

(On its website, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida points out that it “provides essential reproductive health care services to neighboring communities. Our caring and knowledgeable staff provide a wide range of services, including testing, treatment, counseling, and referrals.)

Rainford also told his colleagues that “if a private citizen wants to [contribute money to United Way Suncoast for the 211 service] … and they’re wealthy enough to do so, that makes sense.” However, he stressed, he did not want the county involved in any way in a service that refers people to Planned Parenthood.

(The Sarasota News Leader has reported that Culverhouse has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaign of Rainford’s District 3 Republican Primary opponent, former Sheriff Tom Knight.)

When Chair Michael Moran asked whether Smith wanted to make a motion in regard to directing County Administrator Lewis to talk with Culverhouse, Smith responded that he was thinking that the best step would be to just ask Lewis to contact Culverhouse “and figure out how this payment could happen.”
County Attorney Joshua Moye suggested that that could be a motion. Smith made the motion official, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded it.

The members of the county’s Health Services Advisory Council provided this summary of the United Way Suncoast request to the board members in September. 2023 Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet, Rainford asked again why the county would become involved with a potential donation to the 211 system “We don’t get involved as the middle man” with other organizations, he pointed out. Doing so this time, Rainford added, would be “bad protocol.”

“Boy,” Moran responded, “that’s an interesting question. I was ready to support the motion,” Moran said, “but I think that’s a fair question.” Why would Culverhouse not give the money directly to United Way Suncoast, Moran asked.

County Administrator Lewis again told the commissioners that he would prefer that Culverhouse make a direct contribution to the nonprofit. That would be his suggestion to Culverhouse, Lewis continued, if the motion passed.

Should Culverhouse insist on county involvement in the process, Lewis added, “We could deal with that at a later time.”

Smith said he was “shooting for” the direct contribution from Culverhouse to the nonprofit.

“I think we don’t need to overcomplicate things here,” Commissioner Neunder added. “[Culverhouse] stepped up in a big way.” The faster the contribution could be made, Neunder continued, the better for all parties involved.

“I don’t particularly care for being any type of conveyance for a personal donation to organizations that support some of the things that [United Way Suncoast] supports,” Rainford emphasized to his colleagues. “I think this is a slippery slope.”

Commissioner Joe Neunder. File image

Raising his voice, Neunder also took the opportunity of the discussion to stress a comment he made to the public last year, when controversy arose over the commissioners’ decision not to provide funding to some of the human and behavioral health service providers that the county had supported in the past: “Don’t plan your budget on recurring county dollars!”

(Along with the remarks of Beightol of United Way Suncoast, the commissioners that morning heard pleas for support of the 211 service from Charlene Altenhain, CEO of the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center in Sarasota, and Kirsten Russell, vice president for community impact with the Community Foundation of Sarasota.)

Neunder emphasized that he does not believe any organization should keep getting funds just because they have received county money for the past 10 or 15 years, Neunder added. “The private sector does not do that.”

Finally, Moran said he would support Smith’s motion, but he also told Rainford that he concurred with Rainford’s comments.

When Moran called for the vote, Rainford was the only commissioner to oppose Smith’s motion.

In response to a News Leader inquiry, county staff provided this comment from Lewis on March 21: “I have not spoken to Mr. Culverhouse directly, but it is my understanding that he has provided the contribution directly to the Suncoast United Way.”

The night of March 21, the News Leader did receive confirmation  from United Way Suncoast that the contribution had been received.

Jessica Muroff, CEO of United Way Suncoast, provided this statement: “We’re thrilled that Hugh Culverhouse stepped up to fulfill this void for the many Sarasota County residents who have come to rely on 211. I spoke to him and extended our heartfelt gratitude on behalf of the community. We can now look forward to this vital referral service continuing to serve as a lifeline for the many Sarasota County community members who find themselves needing support from the area’s valued nonprofits.”

Criticism of United Way Suncoast

During the March 19 discussion, Moran emphasized to his colleagues — as he had to Beightol — that he had seen 990 reports issued by United Way Suncoast. Those are the annual financial forms that the IRS requires nonprofits to file. United Way Suncoast, Moran said, has about $49 million in cash and securities.

He asked Beightol during Open to the Public why the organization would request funding from the county when it had such a strong financial situation.

“Our budget was set well before this decision was made,” she responded, referring to the commission vote last year to deny the 211 grant.

This is the top part of the 990 filing by United Way Suncoast in 2022. Image from Guidestar

He also asked her whether her office had sent out a document that he had seen with “talking points” saying that the 211 system would end if the county did not provide the $109,381.

“We sent out talking points to help folks understand the … importance of 211,” Beightol told him, noting that she believed the document had been distributed to all of the county commissioners.

Moran told her he did not receive one.

Then Moran reiterated what he had alluded to as part of the “talking points” in the United Way Suncoast document, that it would be the board’s fault if the 211 helpline ceased to function as of April 1. “Just the tone and tenor of that, I don’t like.”

Once more, Moran referred to the amount of money the nonprofit reported in the 990 report he had reviewed.

(A Sarasota News Leader review of United Way Suncoast’s 990 form for 2022 — the latest available from the Guidestar organization, which is part of a company called Candid — found that the nonprofit reported $49,611,809 in net assets or fund balances at the end of 2022.)

More questions from Moran

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community leadership with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, based in Venice, was one of many advocates for providing the funding to prevent the halt of 211 services.

In a March 13 email to Moran, Thaxton called 211 an ”essential health and human services network referral service.”

This is the listing for United Way Suncoast in Guidestar, which is part of the Candid company. In regard to the ‘Platinum’ level, a Candid blog explains, ‘GuideStar uses a system of four Seals— bronze, silver, gold, and platinum — to indicate a level of transparency and completeness of an organization’s GuideStar profile. As they scale up, the Seals require increasing amounts of information about an organization and its goals and effectiveness.’

Earlier, on Feb. 29, Thaxton had forwarded to all of the commissioners an email that he had received from Beightol, the chief impact officer of United Way Suncoast, in which she had explained to that organization’s partners that, because of the County Commission vote last year, the 211 funding would “be exhausted at the end of next month, March 31, 2024. This means that on April 1, 2024, we anticipate that there will no longer be 2-1-1 Information and Referral services in Sarasota County. Calls will be forwarded to Sarasota County’s 311 line …”
Thaxton added in his Feb. 29 email to the commissioners, “Respectfully, I still don’t understand this decision. Seems like a high risk with no return.”

Moran replied in a March 4 email: “Clarity please…

“Did UW [United Way] reach out to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation for funding this gap? If so, what were the results of that request please?

“If UW requested funding from GCCF [Gulf Coast], were existing clients of GCCF contacted to potentially allocate donor advised funds? If so, did they say ‘no’…? Any reasoning provided?

“Were any new prospects of GCCF approached to possibly fund this request? If so, results please?’ ” Moran added.

In Thaxton’s March 13 email to Moran, Thaxton pointed out, “Gulf Coast and other local foundations have and will continue to support 211 funding to enhance services and effectiveness beyond that which the County’s investment alone can accomplish.”

In another set of email exchanges, Moran continued to press Thaxton for an exact amount of support from the Foundation for 211.

Finally, on March 15, Thaxton explained in an email that he had answered Moran’s question as well as he could at that time. Thaxton added, “A dollar amount cannot be determined until after the county funding level is known and a needs and gaps assessment is completed. Asking me for a dollar amount now is like asking a football coach what will be his/her third down play called in the second quarter of a football game — it depends.”