Moran calls for end to county employee payroll deductions for United Way and for termination of any support for 211 referral system

Commissioners to address resolutions during regular meeting on April 23

Commissioner Michael Moran. File image

At the behest of Sarasota County Commission Chair Michael Moran, the board members agreed unanimously last week to direct County Attorney Joshua Moye to draft a resolution that would end all charitable donations to the United Way Suncoast from county employee paychecks.

Moreover, Moran called for the commission to halt support for the 211 phone referral service that United Way Suncoast manages for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. That is a response, Moran stressed, to the board members learning last month that 211 operators will refer people to Planned Parenthood for assistance.

In an exchange with Commissioner Neil Rainford during the board’s March 19 Open to the Public comment period, Bronwyn Beightol, chief impact officer with United Way Suncoast, which is based in Tampa, acknowledged that 211 operators do refer people to Planned Parenthood.

In reviewing the commission’s April 23 meeting agenda this week, The Sarasota News Leader learned that Moye ended up preparing separate resolutions for the board’s consideration. The April 23 meeting will be held at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

In September 2023, Moran won his commission colleagues’ support in denying county funding of $109,381 to United Way Suncoast for the 211 service for this fiscal year. A county advisory council had recommended the amount, after reviewing the application from United Way Suncoast.

Later, even after community leaders urged the board members to revisit that decision, citing the value of the referral service, Moran remained steadfast in his stance. Commissioner Mark Smith was the only board member who argued for approving the funding.

Ultimately, Hugh Culverhouse Jr., developer of Palmer Ranch, agreed to provide the funds, in lieu of the county’s doing so, for United Way Suncoast to continue the 211 service in Sarasota county for two years.

During his report to his colleagues as part of their regular meeting on April 9, in Venice, Moran explained that he had asked the Office of the County Attorney to work on terminating the county’s relationship with both United Way Suncoast and the 211 system, “given Commissioner Rainford’s line of questioning [on March 19].”

This is a banner on the United Way Suncoast website.

Moran also discussed his having learned that the county was allowing employees to make payroll deductions to United Way Suncoast.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, both talked of research they and their staffs had undertaken to try to determine whether any formal resolution existed to implement those deductions. Lewis said he could not find one, though he conceded, “I find that odd.”

Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller. Image from the Clerk’s Office website

Rushing and her staff “also did a very in-depth search,” Lewis added. All that she could find, he continued, was a 1985 proclamation in recognition of United Way.

Rainford noted his understanding that United Way is “the only foundation you can give directly to” as a county employee. When he asked Lewis how long those deductions had been taking place, Lewis replied, “My guess is 30 to 40 years.” Having served in other jurisdictions since the mid-1990s, before he joined the Sarasota County staff in 2017 as an assistant county administrator, Lewis added that he was familiar with local governments providing such payroll deductions for long periods of time.

Rushing pointed out that she found records showing that, when the United Way still had an office in Sarasota County, county commissioners served on the nonprofit’s board. That was around 1985 or 1987, she said. “It may have gone back to the ’70s.”

Then Rainford pointed out, “Just to be clear, I’m very supportive of, you know, board members, our staff, our community supporting whatever foundation … excites them and does great work …” However, he continued, “I have tremendous concern about an individual foundation supported by our county payroll …”

Rainford also noted that Planned Parenthood holds a seat on the United Way board. “I believe the county shouldn’t be involved in picking winners and losers of where we can donate.”

“Well said,” Moran responded.

Moran added, “Why is government assisting with an exclusive arrangement with any nonprofit for fundraising, let alone one that is referring residents to abortion services?”

Then Moran asked County Attorney Moye whether a resolution would have to be approved by the commission to halt the payroll deductions, or whether the board simply could direct staff to take that action.

“I think a resolution would be the cleanest way,” Moye replied, as the resolution could point to board policy as the reason for the action. That resolution also could make it clear that it supersedes any other resolution, Moye pointed out.

When Moran asked Rushing about the timeline necessary for her staff to stop the deductions, she indicated that it would not take long. However, she did note that employees who have been allowing the deductions would need adequate notice about the change. She suggested that the resolution call for the changeover within “a reasonable period of time.”

Commissioner Joe Neunder voiced full support for Moran’s call for the resolution.

Commissioner Smith added, “I appreciate … we shouldn’t be deducting for a religious organization. … I’m sure it was well intended.” Nonetheless, he continued, “It seems odd that a government would have its employees [making such deductions].” Yet, Smith pointed out, with the end of the payroll practice, employees still can give money to United Way, if they choose to do so.

“I agree that just singling out one [nonprofit for payroll deductions] is not appropriate,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told his colleagues.

Moran then passed the gavel to Neunder, the vice chair, to make the motion. He called for County Attorney Moye to have the resolution ready for the board during its regular meeting on April 23, with the intent of not only halting the payroll deductions but also all county support for the 211 referral line.

Rainford seconded the motion.

This is the proposed payroll deduction resolution for the April 23 commission meeting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Questioning the proposal regarding 211

Smith did tell Moran that he was “a little confused” about the inclusion of the language regarding 211. Any application for funding for that service for the 2025 fiscal year would come to the appropriate county advisory board, which would review that application and make its recommendation to the commission, Smith pointed out.

“I’m not going to support any organization that is referring to Planned Parenthood for abortion services,” Moran replied.

When Smith asked whether it would be more appropriate for the board to consider two separate resolutions, Moran replied of the resolution, “It is as broad a brush as it could possibly be.” He stressed his intent to help end referrals to Planned Parenthood.

Moye told the commissioners that he would review the video of the meeting, to ensure he captured the details of the discussion they had conducted. Then he would draw up the resolution, which — he noted — they could tweak on April 23.

“I think my intent is clear, hopefully,” Moran responded.

After that, the motion calling for the resolution passed 5-0.

This is the proposed 211 resolution on the April 23 agenda. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Public commendations for the action

Sally Nista addresses the commissioners on April 9. News Leader image

During the Open to the Public period at the end of the April 9 meeting, Sally Nista of Venice, a member of the Sarasota County Republican Assembly Chapter, told the commissioners, “I am grateful for your leadership and conviction to do the right thing to protect taxpayers and the children in this county. … Commissioners Moran and Rainford, thank you for being forthright with the information about the United Way Suncoast. As I spoke with many of my neighbors and friends, they, too, were appalled that a nonprofit is using taxpayer money to make referrals for possible abortion services. The large majority of taxpayers in Sarasota County support your actions to withhold taxpayer funding for this organization.”

She added that she also wanted to strongly encourage the commissioners “to continue examining how taxpayer money is spent,” especially in regard to nonprofits.

“All of you are participating in socialism when you take my money, via taxes, and give it away to agencies that don’t deal with infrastructure and public safety services,” Nista said. “It is socialism. It is the redistribution of the wealth by government. … We know that more accountability at the individual level creates better services and less waste. We know the more government gets involved, the more corruption is available.”

“Thank you,” Moran responded. “Thank you for hanging around all afternoon.” (Because of several public hearings on the agenda, the meeting did not end until just after 5 p.m.)

Conni Brunni, president of the county’s Republican Assembly Chapter, followed Nista to the podium, telling the commissioners, “I was very concerned, as are many people, finding out that the United Way had essentially found a way to do an end run to circumvent your policy, that’s been stated publicly, not to have taxpayer money fund abortions. “It’s not right,” Brunni added, “and it made me wonder how many other entities might be doing the same thing. So I appreciate having elected officials willing to dig into something that obviously might be a little uncomfortable and kind of expose something that was awkward.”

1 thought on “Moran calls for end to county employee payroll deductions for United Way and for termination of any support for 211 referral system”

  1. Once again, Michael is consistent in opposing anything benefiting the citizens of Sarasota County, especially those less fortunate; in this case United Way. My guess (although I do not know) is that United Way, which funds many non-profits, does not fund that of his wife. The best hope for the county is that Michael is unsuccessful in his bid to become the county tax collector.


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