Decision to be made in March on proposal for November 2020 referendum on creation of a Mental Health Care Special District in Sarasota County

County commissioners direct staff to undertake outreach to service providers and the public and then prepare report on community view of dedicated funding stream through a district

This is the timeline the County Commission would need to follow to get a referendum on the November 2020 ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At some point in March 2020, the Sarasota County Commission will decide — as a staff member put it — on “pulling the trigger” to conduct a voter referendum in November 2020 on the creation of a Mental Health Care Special District governed by the commission.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran — who has championed the potential of such a district — the board on Dec. 10 unanimously directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and staff to move forward with planned public outreach that will guide the board’s decision in March 2020.

At the request of Commissioner Nancy Detert, Moran amended his initial motion to call for the outreach to explore funding through the district for substance abuse and addiction treatment, as well.

During the discussion, Detert pointed out that police officers and Sheriff’s Office personnel do not know initially whether a person they have been called to assist is suffering just from mental health issues.

After Moran accepted her proposal, Detert seconded the motion.

In January and February 2020, staff will conduct outreach to the stakeholders — especially the providers of mental health and substance abuse services — and then prepare a report for presentation to the board in March 2020, Wayne Applebee, senior manager in the county’s Health and Human Services Department, told the commissioners. At that point, he added, the commission would need to decide whether to proceed with putting a referendum on the November 2020 ballot.

Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

“In March, we could bail out if we chose to do so,” Moran pointed out.

In the spring, Moran broached the idea of a Mental Health Care Special District for the county, suggesting that the commission could utilize a state statute that provides the necessary framework.

On Aug. 27, he won his colleagues’ consensus for staff research into the potential of a voter referendum that would establish a millage rate for the district, with the revenue allocated to specific purposes.

Then, in late September, the commissioners unanimously directed staff to investigate the timeline for getting the district referendum on a ballot.

During his Dec. 10 presentation, Applebee provided a refresher on information staff had giving the commissioners after completing all the research.

An independent district, Applebee noted, would be governed by a board whose members would have the responsibility of selecting the programs and services to be funded; approving the annual budget; setting the millage rate; and employing the necessary staff to manage the district.

The governing board must have a minimum of five members, to conform to the state law, Applebee pointed out; two of those would have to be appointed by the governor, but the commission could appoint the other three.

The County Commission could “place certain limitations on the special district,” Applebee explained. However, the commission would not be able to adjust those after the district was created, he said.

A dependent district, he continued, would be governed by the County Commission. “You, as the board, would make [the] decisions” about how the district would function, he added. One caveat for a dependent district, Applebee explained, would be its application only to the unincorporated part of the county.

This graphic offers details about creation of a dependent district, as well as a district with services financed by a specific amount of the county’s operating millage rate. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Later, Deputy County Attorney Karl A. Senkow told the commissioners that state law governing dependent districts would allow municipalities within the county to opt into being governed by the district, as well. He added that the Office of the County Attorney would need to conduct more research to be certain how a dependent district could function. “There may be an option through dedicated millage” for the entire county to be included, he noted, if a municipality did not want to participate in the district.

“I truly envision this being a countywide dependent district,” Chair Charles Hines said. If leaders of one or more of the county‘s municipalities do not want to opt in, he added, “I’m going to let them explain that to the public.”

Wayne Applebee. File photo

The third option, Applebee told the board members, would be to increase the county’s operating millage rate, with the extra money dedicated to a list of services the district would provide.

Both the dependent and independent districts could be created by voter referendum, he pointed out.

If the board wished to proceed with a referendum on the November 2020 ballot, he continued, it would need to provide staff direction no later than April on whether it wanted to establish an independent or dependent district. That way, staff could draft the appropriate ordinance, in compliance with county regulations for ballot initiatives.

Applebee added that a public hearing would have to be conducted in July 2020 on the proposed adoption of the ordinance, which would include the ballot language and the election date. By Aug. 14, 2020, he said, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office would have to have the ballot language for the referendum, with the General Election set for Nov. 3, 2020.

A quick consensus

During the discussion, Commissioner Detert was the first to call for a dependent district established by referendum. “Having [the district] under our control certainly appeals to me. … Otherwise, whatever rules we set up on Day 1, those are the rules.”

Moreover, she said, an independent district would not be accountable to the taxpayers. With a dependent district, she continued, if voters do not like how the commissioners are governing it, “They can get rid of us.”

“I like the idea of a referendum,” Chair Hines told his colleagues. “It helps us get the community buy-in. I think it’s already there for the organizations that I’ve spoken to.”

Hines added that he also liked the idea of staff engagement with the public and stakeholders, so their positions on the relevant issues would be determined.

Finally, Hines voiced his support for a dependent district, as well.

As he has noted in earlier discussions of the potential of Mental Health Care Special District, Hines again talked about his desire to see it help fund the operation of a new community corrections facility. The commissioners have talked with Sheriff Tom Knight, State Attorney Ed Brodsky, Public Defender Larry Eger and representatives of Court Administration of the 12th Judicial Circuit about constructing such a facility instead of building a new jail. In late August, they unanimously agreed to fund — on a trial basis — a 40-bed, secured residential treatment and re-entry program for criminal offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues.

As he understands the state law, Hines continued on Dec. 10, funding that comes through the district could not help pay for the construction of the new center, but revenue could be used for operating expenses.

Chair Charles Hines. News Leader image

“I’m not comfortable with just saying, ‘Let’s raise the money and increase the amount of funding’” for providers through the county’s Health and Human Services Department, Hines stressed.

Detert offered another idea: Perhaps the commission could create a campus and then coordinate with First Step or another provider of substance abuse services — whatever entity has a proven track record, she stressed — to provide assistance to those who need it, she said. “I don’t want to build a cottage industry just because we’re hanging a pot full of money out there on a tree for everybody to go to.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler also voiced support for a referendum. “It’s important for the citizens to have oversight on how their dollars are spent, as much as possible.”

Then Ziegler asked whether the applicable state statute includes a sunset for the district.

Deputy County Attorney Senkow replied that it does not.

“I just think it’s important [to have one],” Ziegler responded.

Commissioner Alan Maio then offered his support for a dependent district created by referendum “and somehow the language [saying] we decide when [the district] ends.”