Leaders of four community foundations urge County Commission to reconsider behavioral health and human services grants for 2025 fiscal year

Nonprofit CEOs call for board members to reverse process Commissioner Moran has put in place past couple of years

Philip P. Lanham. Image courtesy Gulf Coast Community Foundation

Leaders of four of Sarasota County’s community foundations have urged the Sarasota County commissioners to reconsider the 2025 fiscal year funding awards they approved on June 5 for behavioral health and other human services.

In a June 17 email, Philip Lanham, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which is based in Venice; Christine Robinson, executive director of The Argus Foundation in Sarasota; Teri A Hansen, president and CEO of the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation in Sarasota; and Roxanne G. Jerde, president & CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, wrote,“The June 5 County Commission meeting included recommendations from Chair [Michael] Moran that were not made public until the meeting. Without input from the citizen Advisory Councils or county staff,” the email added, cuts were made. “This came at a time when Sarasota County is collecting its largest property tax revenue increases in generations, and human service needs are at an all-time high,” the Foundation leaders pointed out.

“For decades,” they continued, “citizen-led Advisory Councils carefully reviewed all nonprofit requests for county Human Services funding. The Council members made site visits, deliberated how to meet the needs of a growing community, and, as a group, shared recommendations on how to allocate tax dollars wisely. For the second year in a row, this transparent process was replaced by decision-making without public input.”

As The Sarasota News Leader reported, prior to the June 5 board votes on the grants for the 2025 fiscal year, Moran provided his colleagues revised lists of the recipients, which he had created after reviewing the lists that the board’s appointed advisory councils had submitted with their recommendations.

This is Commissioner Mike Moran’s scoring sheet for the behavioral health grant applications for the 2025 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

These are the scores that the members of the county’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council provided to the commissioners for the June 5 discussion. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran took the same action in 2023. In the aftermath of the resulting board votes, numerous representatives of nonprofits left off Moran’s list appeared at a subsequent County Commission meeting, pleading for reconsideration. Following the airing of those remarks, the board members voted to add some of the organizations back to the list for grants for the current fiscal year.

On June 5, Commissioners Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder were successful in gaining support to include a few other nonprofits on Moran’s list. However, Commissioner Mark Smith was unable to win his colleagues’ approval to continue funding for the Early Coalition of Sarasota County.

Over the past several years, as the News Leader also has reported, Moran has been working to revise the advisory council review process, including a move to require the councils to analyze applicants’ 990 forms filed with the IRS. Those forms provide annual financial details about the organizations, including the amounts of reserves that they have.

Moran has maintained that the revision of the entire process was necessary because — he has asserted — advisory council members in the past who had affiliations with some of the nonprofit applicants worked to steer funding to those applicants. Moran has told his commission colleagues that people involved with the grant process had reported such situations to him.

Zeroing in on specific denials of requests

In their June 17 email, the Foundation leaders pointed to several of the June 5 commission decisions that they had found them especially troubling:

  • “The denial of the Early Learning Coalition’s $510,000 request results in a loss of high-quality childcare opportunities, along with hard-won state matching funds,” they wrote. “Families earning just above the federal poverty line ($13 per hour for a single parent and $15 per hour for two parents with two children) will not be eligible for any childcare financial assistance. When parents are unable to secure safe childcare, it negatively impacts our work force. About 300 families, including some County employees, will lose access to quality care with this combined loss of $1 million for school readiness.
  • “A successful 10-year contract was cut with Harvest House for emergency shelter services for homeless and at-risk families,” they continued. “In 2023, the agency served 198 parents and children and 128 young adults with this funding, which was matched with philanthropic dollars. 100% of young adult participants then secured safe housing, and 89% of families moved from the shelter to safe housing. If the County imposes new application requirements, applicants need time to respond.”

The county’s Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) ranked Harvest House’s Family & Young Adult Haven program third out of 51 applications, a form in the June 5 agenda packet noted. The request for funding was $310,250, to serve 110 clients.

This is the summary of one of the Harvest House requests for funding in the 2025 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Following the commission’s June 5 votes, Erin Minor, CEO of Harvest House, addressed the commissioners during the final Open to the Public comment period that day.

She alluded to a remark that Commissioner Ron Cutsinger had made earlier, during the discussions involving the applicants. Churches are not required to file 990 forms, Cutsinger had pointed out.

Minor told the commissioners that it appeared they had cut the Harvest House funding because of the lack of a 990 filing.

“We get audited financials every year,” she stressed more than once.

She also told them, “I make $125,000. I’m not hiding anything. I just celebrated 20 years at Harvest House in May. I’m a CEO; I’m not living ‘high on the hog.’ ”

Erin Minor addresses the commissioners after their June 5 votes. News Leader image

Moreover, Minor continued, “We have had federal contracts, state contracts and local contracts,” and all of the organizations involved in those decisions have had no concerns about using Harvest House’s audited financials.

The church has had contracts with, for example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Veterans Administration and the Florida Department of Corrections, she pointed out. “We’ve contracted with Sarasota County the last 10 years for emergency shelter for families and young adults.”

Minor further noted, “Our programs were ranked very high” by the county’s advisory council members.

In regard to the church’s second application, the Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) ranked the Freedom Recovery Program No. 4 on its funding list. The summary for that application said the council members believed the program should receive the $190,000 it was requesting. One reason for that ranking, that form noted, was the fact that it “had an excellent financial score.”

  • Then the Foundation leaders pointed out in their email, “Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast was denied $180,000 to serve 1,050 youth when outcomes show 100% of participants remained arrest-free despite significant life challenges and high rates of incarcerated relatives. Youth mentoring helped these students to achieve a 99% promotion and graduation rate and 100% of graduates to continue their education, join the military, or enter the workforce. Restricted capital campaign contributions from donors reflected in the organization’s public financial disclosures are not available to be used for program costs.”

Commissioner Cutsinger had urged his colleagues to add that grant recommendation back to the list for approval. Yet, even though Commissioner Neil Rainford initially supported that action, he ended up joining the rest of the board member in voting “No” after Moran referenced details in the organization’s 990 form. Moran said those were an indication that Big Brothers Big Sisters could pay for the program itself.

  • Next, the Foundation leaders wrote, “The tabling of the United Way of South Sarasota Countyrequest for the Supportive Housing Initiative, Eviction Lifeline & Diversion (SHIELD) program, provided in collaboration with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, means that families facing eviction will no longer remain stably housed. To date, this public-private collaboration has assisted more than 300 families.”

They further pointed out, “The Commission removed $1,125,000 in behavioral health funding from the total to provide reimbursement to hand-selected agencies, circumventing the proven reporting metrics required for Human Services contracting.”

As the News Leader reported, Moran explained to his colleagues that he had provided on his list funding up to $125,000 for each of nine organizations to implement a Licensed Mental Health Reimbursement Program in the 2025 fiscal year, based on the performance of a pilot program that he and his colleagues launched this year.

The trial initiative made it possible for licensed mental health care professionals to go into homes of families with at-risk youth in an effort to address problems at an early stage.

Moran brought up that trial program to his colleagues late last year, explaining that he had met with leaders of four nonprofits about it. Those original four who participated in the pilot program were Forty Carrots Family Center in Sarasota; the Florida Center for Early Childhood in Sarasota; Teen Court; and JFCS of the Suncoast.

Moran’s wife, Lori, is the chief operating officer of Sarasota Teen Court. Earlier this year, he announced during a commission meeting that the Florida Commission on Ethics had found that it was not inappropriate for him to participate in votes related to Teen Court programs.

This is information on the Teen Court website.

Members of the community have criticized Moran for including Teen Court applications among those on his lists for county grant awards.

On June 5, Moran added NAMI Sarasota and Manatee Counties; Centerplace Health; Academy at Glengary; All Star Children’s Foundation; and Insight Counseling Services to his list of organizations to participate in the Licensed Mental Health Reimbursement Program, even though they had not requested funding for it.

Commissioner Cutsinger did question the fact that the county’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council had not vetted the implementation of the program, or the fact that the nine organizations would be considered for the grants. Moran indicated that the commissioners had the discretion to do as they wished in regard to the funding awards.

The Foundation leaders concluded their email as follows:

“Local foundations and philanthropists invest millions of dollars annually to launch, expand, and strengthen public-private partnerships. Together, we have succeeded in providing paths to housing for those in need, improved access to children’s health care and education, and responded to disasters and emerging needs. Philanthropy alone, however, cannot build and maintain the infrastructure required for our rapidly growing population to thrive.

“We respectfully request your reconsideration of the June 5 funding cuts, including the high-scoring proposals listed above,” they wrote. “The methods used to support the vote should be replaced with the preexisting evaluation process.”

A separate plea from The Argus Foundation

On June 18, the day after she joined the other Foundation leaders in their letter to the county commissioners, Christine Robinson, the executive director of the Argus Foundation, sent a similar plea on her own.

Robinson is a former county commissioner, having left the board in 2016 because of term limits.

The Argus Foundation Board,” she wrote, wanted “to express concern with the processes the commission has undertaken for funding of mental health and social services as well as concern for the end results.”

Christine Robinson. Image from the Argus Foundation website

Noting the Foundation’s inclusion among those represented in the June 17 email, she added that the behavioral health and human service funding “process has become inconsistent, unreliable, and lacks transparency. All of these things should be the pillars of decision making when it comes to taxpayer money. Some of your decisions will have taxpayer consequences that will be negatively felt for decades into the future, especially for our overpopulated jail.”

Robinson continued, “You have intimated plans to ask taxpayers for more taxes in 2026 for a new jail. You have to look the taxpayer in the eye when you do that and show that you did everything you could to keep that population down. You cannot do that with the cuts you recently made. The taxpayer will be reminded of these cuts in two years if a new jail should come to a referendum.”

As the News Leader also has reported, on Jan. 30, the county commissioners voted unanimously to authorize county administrative and other staff members “to move forward,” as Moran put it, “with whatever it takes for a timeline to get a referendum in front of Sarasota County voters” in 2026, so a new correctional facility can be constructed in downtown Sarasota, and the West Wing of the jail can be renovated.

Then Robinson wrote in her June 18 email, “We urge you to return to the previous processes to bring back faith in the process. After you do that, undertake a thorough business plan with reliable criteria that are transparent, make sense, and are predictable in measurements with outcomes. Then test the plan to ensure fairness, reliability, and consistency. Argus recommended this process years ago when you started to put together the mental health district as we were concerned with the process. We are at this point today because these important business principles were ignored in the creation of this new approach. Now, you have an opportunity to repair the system that has been further broken by random decisions.”

Finally, Robinson added, “We urge you to start over and treat taxpayer money in social services as a reliable investment with predictability in outcomes. You have the opportunity to improve these systems which have been broken in the last two years. Begin again. The Argus Foundation will assist you in any way we can to stabilize the systems again.”

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