Moran asks federal lobbyist for help in securing federal funding for United Way Suncoast 211 referral service for health and human services

Commissioners approve letter to Sarasota Legislative Delegation seeking state support, as well

This is an image from the United Way Suncoast website.

Among the human services program applications that did not win Sarasota County Commission approval for funding this fiscal year was a request from United Way Suncoast regarding a program that provides information and referral services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to residents and organizations in the county, as explained in the application.

On Dec. 12, Commissioner Michael Moran asked Amanda Wood, the county’s federal lobbyist who is on staff with the Becker law firm in Washington, D.C., for help with trying to secure financial support from Congress for the service.

The request of the United Way Suncoast explained, “By dialing an easy to remember, three digit number, 2-1-1, callers can be connected to a trained … referral specialist who reviews their health and/or human services needs, and searches for resources to meet their needs and provide appropriate referrals. Information is also available on the [United Way Suncoast] website, which is another important resource for clients, agencies and the entire community.”

The 211 calls go through the Heart of Florida United Way call center, documents point out.

The United Way Suncoast website explains that, in July 2012, the United Way of Tampa Bay and the United Way of Sarasota consolidated, creating United Way Suncoast. Then, in 2017, the organization merged with United Way of Manatee County, the website adds, expanding the nonprofit’s footprint to five counties: Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas and DeSoto counties.

When the members of Sarasota County’s Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) reviewed all of the applications under its purview for funding recommendations for the current fiscal year, they agreed to support the United Way Suncoast’s application for $109,381, which represented 30% of the organization’s budget for the 211 system.

The County Commission approved $105,717 for the agency for that purpose in the 2023 fiscal year, the document added.

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. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The form that the HSAC prepared for the commissioners in advance of their Sept. 12 meeting, providing details about the program, noted that the total number of calls accepted in the United Way Suncoast’s “entire service area” was 6,369 in the third quarter of the 2023 fiscal year. The total number of calls answered was 5,392, the document added, and the average call time was 7 minutes and 10 seconds.

The average speed of answer, the document said, was 58 seconds.

Further, the number of visits to United Way Suncoast’s website for third quarter of the 2023 fiscal year was 3,471.

In regard to the County Commission’s priorities for funding of applications for the 2024 fiscal year — which began on Oct. 1 — the HSAC wrote that United Way Suncoast “stated the program is linked to food, shelter, and safety priorities. Callers are referred to

agencies that provide SNAP/food stamp assistance, food pantries, fresh food, WIC, afterschool/summer meals, rental/mortgage assistance, temporary shelter, transitional housing, severe weather shelter, low-income rental resources, foreclosure assistance, domestic violence assistance, mental health services, counseling, treatment programs, suicide prevention, and addiction support.”

However, on Sept. 12, when Commissioner Moran discussed with his colleagues the proposed 2024 fiscal year funding for human services, he left the United Way Suncoast off his list because, he said, it did not score high enough, based on his calculations, in view of the board’s priorities.

Yet, the Health and Human Services Advisory Council had ranked it third out of 51 requests.

These are part of the ranked applications for HSAC funding in the 2024 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 26, when Commission Chair Ron Cutsinger called for another look at the funding requests — on the basis of what he cited as problems with the scoring of both the HSAC members and those on the county’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council — United Way Suncoast still ended up with no county money.

On Dec. 12, during a discussion of county federal legislative priorities, Moran told lobbyist Wood that counties are being asked to pay for more and more human and mental health services. “Should the feds be paying for this?” he added of the 211 system. “Should the state be paying for this? Why is it at the foot of the Sarasota County taxpayer?”

“We’re in full support of the state or feds paying for it,” Moran pointed out.

In fact, he continued, the commissioners had agreed to send a letter seeking state government funding for the service.

Nonetheless, Moran said, the commission’s refusal to approve the United Way Suncoast application “created a lot of heartburn here.”

Wood replied that she had seen nothing about the issue, but she would research it. If she finds that federal resources could be used to support it, “We’ll do everything we can to [win that support].”

“It was a good idea,” Moran said of the 211 service. Still, he repeated his concern that the county is being asked to use taxpayer money to support it.

This is part of a handout that Commissioner Mike Moran provided his colleagues on Sept. 12, reminding them of the funding priorities for human services and behavioral health services in the 2024 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Later that day, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis presented a draft of a letter regarding the United Way Suncoast 211 funding that would be sent to the members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation, including state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota and Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota. The letter explained that the commissioners were offering their support for “efforts to seek state partnerships and funding for the 211 Suncoast Program.”

It also noted that 211 Suncoast maintains data and availability regarding more than 1,929 services “in just Sarasota County.”

The letter added, “Citizens and community organizations rely upon the accuracy of this data to assist people in emergent need or [those who] might have multiple barriers to overcome. Churches and other faith-based organizations rely on the information,” with Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity (SURE) and the Sarasota Ministerial Association reporting that their members “rely heavily on 211 to refer people to resources.”