Cutsinger points to ‘flaws in the process’ regarding scoring by county advisory council members
(Editor’s note: This article was updated about midday on Oct. 2 to correct the spelling of a speaker’s name during the Open to the Public period of the Sept. 26 meeting. The News Leader was unable to confirm that spelling until Oct. 2.)
In the wake of widespread community criticism, the Sarasota County commissioners on Sept. 26 took a series of votes to provide more human services funding awards to nonprofits whose applications had been denied during board votes on Sept. 12.
The votes came after Chair Ron Cutsinger explained that, in reviewing the program applications and scoring sheets himself following the Sept. 12 action, “What quickly became apparent was that there were flaws in the process that led to significantly inaccurate scores.”
He told the audience in the Commission Chambers on Sept. 26 that, on Sept. 13, he let County Administrator Jonathan Lewis know that he wanted to revisit the decisions; therefore, he asked Lewis to put an item to that effect on the Sept. 26 meeting agenda, under Cutsinger’s reports to his colleagues.
“For me,” Cutsinger said, “this felt like a rushed decision [on Sept. 12]. I hadn’t fully vetted the process, and, obviously, I had concerns.”
Among the organizations that won support this week were the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota & DeSoto Counties, the Child Protection Center, the Laurel Civic agency, the Safe Children Coalition, including its Schoolhouse Link program, the Loveland Center in Venice, and two programs conducted by the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Venice.
Among the speakers during the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 26, Julie Forestier summed up the community reaction over the board’s Sept. 12 actions.
Explaining that she is a mother and a guardian for a child who was in foster care at one time in the child’s life, Forrester said that she, “like so many people here today, was shocked to learn about the egregious cuts to so many community organizations. There are no words adequate to express my absolute disgust and heartbreak over the cuts.”
As a person who works in the youth services sector, Forester continued, she found it “more devastating still … the thought of the underserved, disadvantaged or vulnerable populations that will suffer as a result of these cuts. … These funding cuts are not what this community wants …”
In comments during the Sept. 26 discussion and exchanges with speakers, Commissioner Michael Moran expressed his opposition to taxpayer money going toward socialist programs. Moran is the board member who has led the effort over the past couple of years to modify the process of providing county funds for the human services programs. He stressed again this week that his goal at the outset was to make the funding decisions transparent and to ensure that recipients deserve the public money.
At one point on the morning of Sept. 26, Moran engaged in an exchange with Lee Wetherington, whose eponymous firm builds luxury homes. Wetherington also has been working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties for 32 years, Wetherington pointed out to the commissioners. (He is a long-time member of its board.)
That organization was one of those whose funding the commissioners denied last week.’
“When I joined the club,” Wetherington pointed out, “it was bankrupt. When we tried to talk to the national [organization] about it,” he continued, representatives of the national organization told the board members of the Sarasota/DeSoto counties club to take care of the problem.
His voice breaking as he talked, Wetherington added, “The money that we raise is … not our money. It’s the community’s money. Our job is to take care of the community money. I preach it to the board almost constantly.”
He then talked about the need to rebuild the Gene Matthews Club in North Port, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ian in 2022, and about raising money to rebuild the Roy McBean Club in Sarasota’s traditionally African American community of Newtown. A large number of children need both of those facilities, Wetherington pointed out.
Moran told Wetherington, “Your opinion means a lot to me. … You truly are the philanthropy on this, not talk. … It’s your money, too.”
Then Moran said of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, “It is a nonprofit that has a very specific mission.” If that mission is clear, he continued, people will write checks for its work.
“What I’m personally struggling with,” Moran added, is “where does the government dollar stop in that? We are literally talking about, here today, paying for food, rent, health insurance, health care, tuition, daycare, utility bills …”
Moran stressed, “We are literally brinking [sic] on — I nickname it ‘Sarasota socialism.’ Where are you coming to the edge when the taxpayer dollars stop?”
Then Moran told Wetherington, “Your opinion means more than most.”
“I’m a big guy about personal responsibility,” Wetherington replied. However, he continued, “We have a lot … of people in this community who, for whatever reason, just do not have the opportunity [to help themselves]. It’s sad, and it breaks my heart,” he continued, tearing up. “To me, as a Christian … you have … to help those people. You have to. I’ve never given a hand out. I’ve always given a hand up,” he added.
Moran then indicated that, in years past, churches and the “social fabric” provided help for people who needed assistance. “Now, all of a sudden,” he said, “the government is the answer, and I just respectfully disagree.”
Wetherington did note, “We have foundations in this community with a billion and a half dollars,” which was given to them, largely for spending on purposes established by the donors. “They do give out a lot of money. … I just don’t see why this board and those foundations can’t get together and do something … good for this community.”
The importance of child care and early learning programs
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, Wetherington and Forrester were among 25 speakers who addressed the commissioners about the Sept. 12 decisions.
Most of them were representatives of agencies whose funding requests had been approved by two county advisory councils comprising “subject matter experts,” as commissioners have noted; the commissioners appointed the members. Yet, those nonprofits were not approved for funding after Moran revised the advisory councils’ lists.
State Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, also was among the group of people who addressed the board. Speaking on behalf of the Early Learning Coalition, she implored the commissioners to restore funding to that organization.
“You have an opportunity to vote for a one-for-one, state-matched funding for Sarasota’s Early Learning Coalition, for school readiness,” she told the commissioners.
The program is for children up to age 5, she continued. Those are the youngsters for which no public school options exist, McFarland said. A parent, a sitter or daycare is the option for those youngsters, she added. Then she stressed, “Daycare today is the second-highest household expense, behind housing …”
Moreover, McFarland pointed out, research has shown that only 40% of the children in kindergarten in Sarasota County “are actually ready to be in kindergarten.”
She also referenced research that shows how critical success in school is to the well being and financial stability of children as they grow into adults.
Further, McFarland added, state research has shown that for every dollar invested in school readiness, $7 is saved in later expenses for social services.
Ashley Brown, president and CEO of the Women’s Resource Center in Sarasota, pointed out that state data had shown that “40% of our community don’t make enough money to live here.” Women, especially, struggle, she said. About 70% of single-head-of-household situations in Sarasota County involve women, she continued.
“It costs more than $20 an hour to live here,” Brown told the board, “but 70% of Floridians earn [just] $20 an hour.”
She also stressed, “Access to quality child care is a huge expense and a huge barrier.”
A recent Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation report pointed out that childcare issues result in an estimated $5.3-billion loss to Florida’s economy each year, Brown added.
That report says, “Childcare is a central determinant in whether a parent can participate in the labor force, a reality that is on full display as the state continues to push for job growth. Florida ranks 41st in labor force participation relative to other states, and our research findings indicate many parents may not be able to continue working without adequate childcare options. The childcare coverage gap in Florida is not only a barrier to parents’ ability to participate in the labor force, but also a hindrance to the state’s potential for growth and success.”
At the request of Commissioner Neil Rainford, all of the board members except Moran ended up voting to fund the Early Learning Coalition at the level recommended by one of the county’s advisory councils.
Moran told his colleagues that he could not support that action. “We’re drifting way too close to those socialism in those areas.”
Past, present and potential future
As a result of Moran’s push over the past two years, the human services funding requests have been separated into two groups: those involving behavioral health programs and those involving other types of services.
Board Chair Cutsinger did stress on Sept. 26, “There’s no finger pointing here. … [The Behavioral Health Advisory Council and the Human Services Advisory Council members] have done a great job. … These are dedicated, passionate volunteers whose only reason for serving is for the good of our community.”
Those members had vetted all of the applications they received before turning over their recommendations to the commissioners.
Yet, given the fact that this is the first year of the new process, Cutsinger continued, “I think it was always understood that we might not get it right the first time around.”
Moran told the audience, “What I’m concerned about is the tremendous amount of misinformation on this; lots of perception; not reality; frankly, some of it political.”
(During the public comments, which began after Cutsinger and Moran made their initial remarks, Dr. Washington Hill of Sarasota, emphasized, “The time has come to put petty differences and politics aside to benefit our county.” Hill added, “Make agencies accountable for funds and data, but give them a chance to do that.”)
Moran also explained that he examined the materials in the Sept. 12 agenda packet, which showed the scores accorded to the requests by members of the two advisory committees. He did not rank any of them or conduct any averaging, Moran emphasized. He focused only on the programs that involved providing food, shelter, safety and mental health help, plus jail diversion efforts. “Those are the approved categories by this board.”
Then, Moran said, he “literally drew a line …” Those programs reviewed by the Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) that received a score of 18 or higher, he designated for recommended funding. With the programs vetted by the Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC), Moran added, he designated those with scores of 16 or higher for funding.
“People might have had perceptions that there were other things going on,” Moran noted again.
The BHAC had received 39 program applications, Moran continued; the commission approved 28 of those for funding, which equated to 72% of the total. “Eleven got more than what they asked for,” he emphasized, as the commission awarded them bonuses representing 7% of the amounts they were approved to receive. (Moran originally proposed that each bonus be $50,000, but Commissioner Neil Rainford suggested the 7% alternative.)
The HSAC received applications for 51 programs, Moran continued, and the commission approved 34 of those, which equated to 67%.
Commissioner Smith pointed out during the discussion that he, too, had “spent a lot of time … looking at the applications” after the Sept. 12 vote. He especially had focused on the details of the programs that the board did not approve, he added.
“I have a great deal of respect for the advisory boards,” Smith told his colleagues, “and I feel we should fund all of the agencies and programs that were recommended to us.”
Cutsinger responded that the board members could discuss each proposal that a commissioner wanted to see win support.
When Smith broached the idea of going ahead with funding for the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, however, Cutsinger suggested that a discussion of that request be placed on an upcoming agenda along with the discussion the board members already agreed to regarding the support sought by Community Assisted & Supported Living (CASL). The commissioners ended up voting formally, and unanimously, to include the Partnership in that discussion.
Commissioner Smith then made several other motions, seeking to fund agencies whose proposals had been denied, but he failed to win sufficient support for them.
Those were Legal Aid of Manasota; a Children First program called Families First Institute/Nurturing Dads Class; and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of the Suncoast’s Employment and Financial Stability Program.
Commissioner Rainford did win his colleagues’ approval of the advisory council-recommended funding for Operation Warrior Resolution, whose application summary said that the program is focused on brain healing for members of the military. The CEO, Kindra Simpkins, had explained the program to the board members that morning during the public comments.
Moran agreed to support that motion, noting that the organization was new among those requesting county support. Cutsinger added that he met Simpkins months ago and “was incredibly impressed” with her.