Former Commissioner Thaxton rebukes commissioners for action
With only one tweak, which Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford offered, Commissioner Michael Moran won the approval of his colleagues last week on revised lists of funding awards to organizations so they can provide behavioral health and human services programs for county residents during the 2024 fiscal year.
He left unfunded a number of proposals that two county advisory councils — whose members the commissioners had appointed — had recommended. The council members had vetted all of the applications and analyzed whether the proposals met the commission’s criteria for awards, the chairs noted in their remarks to the board members on Sept. 12.
Moran also announced that he believed that each of the highest scoring organizations deserved a $50,000 bonus.
Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who serves as senior vice president for community leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, sent a Sept. 17 email to the commissioners, rebuking them for their actions on the two Sept. 12 agenda items.
In that email, a copy of which The Sarasota News Leader obtained, Thaxton wrote, “These program cuts would be devastating at any time, but they are coming at a time when Sarasota’s mental health and human services needs are at or near an all-time high.
“It cannot be said these cuts were necessary because of a lack of funds,” Thaxton continued. “After these cuts were made, almost four million dollars of available and desperately needed unallocated money was left on the table. A commissioner recently asked why more community members were not willing to volunteer to serve on the board’s health advisory committees – this is why.
“Tuesday’s vote needs to be reconsidered and the methods used to support the vote should be replaced with the preexisting evaluation process,” Thaxton added.
Altogether, the funding for the behavioral health programs for the 2024 fiscal year adds up to $7,795,586; the other programs will receive a total of $5,440,847.
County staff memos noted that $8,803,629 was available for the behavioral health initiatives, but the county had only the $5,440,847 for the other programs, applications for which the county’s Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) had reviewed. The latter proposals added up to $5,816,858, a county memo said.
To receive funding, Moran pointed out of his lists, organizations had to propose initiatives that, in his opinion, dealt with providing food, shelter, safety, substance abuse treatment and keeping people charged with minor offenses out of the jail.
In regard to behavioral health care programs, Moran also has emphasized in the past his desire to see more early intervention efforts regarding children and youths.
“This is taxpayer money,” Moran stressed on Sept. 12. “This isn’t nonprofit money or religious funds or philanthropy funds. … We need to have a rational nexus of giving taxpayer money and getting a result for those funds.”
“I’m on board with anything that leads us in a direction to protect taxpayers,” Commissioner Joe Neunder said.
Chair Ron Cutsinger did voice discomfort about revising the funding awards that the Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) had presented to the commission. “I think it would be right … to use the recommendations,” Cutsinger said, “and let the process work out …”
(In fact, the agenda for the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 26, which will be held in downtown Sarasota, says that Cutsinger plans to ask his colleagues to reconsider their Sept. 12 votes.)
At one point on Sept. 12, Moran also discussed a proposal — which his colleagues supported as well — for the county’s Human Services Advisory Council to provide comments on a “financial worksheet” that he had devised and attached to the materials he had given to the other commissioners.
He believes, he said, that requiring each applicant to fill out such a form would give both the advisory council members and the commissioners more details that would guide the funding awards.
For example, Moran pointed out, if an organization has $5 million in reserves — “beyond its normal operating reserves” — why would it ask for taxpayer money to carry out its programs? The advisory councils need to hold “deep conversations” about the applicants’ financial profiles, Moran added, suggesting that some of the nonprofits “might be hoarding cash.”
The tweak Rainford suggested — which won his colleagues’ support — was that, in lieu of the $50,000 bonuses, the commissioners award an extra 7% to the funding amounts sought by those organizations that Moran had identified as having the highest scores.
Concurring with that suggestion, Commissioner Mark Smith noted that one applicant had sought only about $41,000 for the 2024 fiscal year, but Moran would have given that nonprofit a $50,000 bonus on top of the $41,000.
Getting away from ‘spreading the peanut butter around’
After launching the Sept. 12 discussion, Chair Cutsinger commended the members of the new Behavioral Health Advisory Council “for the excellent work that they’ve done.”
He also said he was a “little bit unclear” about some of Moran’s proposals. For example, he noted that he never had seen the commission award bonuses in such a situation.
In the past, Moran told Cutsinger, “[We had] such strangulating criteria” for the dispersal of funds for human services, “it was just, in my opinion, choking the applicants … What we were doing for years was spreading the peanut butter around.”
In his view, Moran continued, the commission should “fund [top-performing organizations] hard, and people that aren’t performing well — they should be in jeopardy of no funding.”
Later, Cutsinger pointed out that the Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) members, who had vetted the requests. are “the subject matter experts.” Yet, Cutsinger noted, 11 of the funding requests the BHAC had approved were not included in Moran’s list. Cutsinger sought assurance from Moran that that was what Moran intended.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Moran responded.
“I think it’s our job to measure [return for the funding],” Rainford added, telling his colleagues, “I’m completely uncomfortable with [some of the BHAC recommendations].”
Among the proposals that the board members chose not to fund, on the basis of Moran’s lists, were requests from the following nonprofits:
- ALSO Youth, which sought $38,466. The summary of that proposal said, “The ALSO for Gay Youth program [will] serve youth aged 10-24, their parents, family members, and teachers. Many college students utilize the program. The program provides free individual, family, and group counseling at our Sarasota Youth Center, or virtually, depending on the youth and family’s preference. Our contracted therapists are all licensed and trained to provide trauma informed care …” The BHAC had recommended full funding.
- Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the Suncoast, which sought $453,182. The program summary said, “The Adolescent Diversion and Assistance Program (ADAP) provides prevention and intervention services to adolescents, ages 11-17, who are at risk of, or have been involved in delinquent behavior, such as domestic violence, shoplifting/stealing, battery/assault, gang activities, bullying, criminal mischief and/or substance abuse charges. JFCS uses the evidence based curriculum, Second Step, for psycho-educational groups to address these issues. In addition, one-on-one counseling and case management services are offered. Group and individual counseling can occur at the agency’s offices, schools, or in the participant’s homes/community and can include families. Services reduce the participant’s potential to enter or re-enter the juvenile justice system.” The BHAC recommended an award of $339,886.
- Safe Children Coalition, which requested $238,197. That program summary explained, “The Children and Parents Together Always Home Visiting Program (CAPTA) engages families that are at a high risk for delivering an infant that is substance-exposed, and/or substance-affected. CAPTA serves expectant mothers and parents of newborns up to 12-months old who have been affected by use of illicit or prescription drugs and/or alcohol within Circuit 12 (Sarasota, Desoto, and Manatee [counties]). The program serves pregnant mothers that have tested positive on a drug screen, admitted to using substances in an interview, or their baby tested positive at birth.” The BHAC recommended full funding.
Like Cutsinger, Rainford pointed out that this is the first year of separating behavioral health program proposals from those for the other contracted services. “I think we’ll learn a lot from the feedback that we get,” he said.
“Certainly, qualitative data helps me any time I’m comparing entities,” Commissioner Neunder said. “I also believe in competition. … Competition brings out the best in all of us …”
Criticism and calls for reconsidering the votes
In his email to the commissioners, Thaxton pointed to several other organizations whose proposals were not funded, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota & DeSoto Counties, the School Readiness Coalition and the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.
Thaxton added, “Tuesday’s vote will also eliminate funding for many other programs such as the Sheriff’s office diversion and emergency shelter beds for homeless persons in crisis provided by CASL [Community Assisted & Supported Living]; Child Protection Center’s education program to prevent child sexual abuse; Catholic Charities efforts that support single mothers in crisis and emergency shelter and services to south county families in crisis; … Schoolhouse Link programs to support homeless youth and still there are many, many more.”
Commissioner Moran did tell his colleagues on Sept. 12 that he did not believe the School Readiness Coalition proposal met the county’s criteria for funding. On its website, the Coalition explains, “The School Readiness program offers qualified parents financial assistance for child care through a variety of services. The Early Learning Coalition identifies eligible children for the program and maintains waiting list for school readiness eligible children. We contract with a number of local early care and education providers who meet the mandated criteria to serve SR [School Readiness] children. While most providers can be eligible to become [a School Readiness] provider, you must be approved by the ELC.”
In response to a News Leader request for comments about Moran’s revised list and remarks, Janet Kahn, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, wrote in a Sept. 20 email, “[F]irst we are strongly questioning this decision, and Moran’s statement that we do not meet the priority. We believe we do meet the priority as we applied under the basic need of safety, and … we were recommended by the [advisory council] for full funding, with a high score. The … other reason we are questioning this decision is that at least two other entities that offer child care are in fact, in Moran’s recommendations for funding (Children First and YMCA). Therefore, there is not consistency in his decision making. If child care and early learning services do not meet the criteria and if in fact other commissioners agreed with that, then there should not be any program or entities that offer child care services funded.”
She added, “The loss of the [$510,000] from the county, which we have had consistently for over 20 years, results in a total loss of over 1 million dollars as we would also lose the state … matching funds of 510k over the course of the county’s funding cycle. None of these funds benefit the ELC itself. This funding is a straight pass through directly to families to access child care. This loss of funds directly impacts between 250 and 300 families that we serve, many of whom work for the county, … the hospital and various businesses in our community,” as well as first responders. “This is a huge loss for our community.”
The News Leader also contacted the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, asking whether President and CEO Bill Sadlo wished to offer a statement about the County Commission action last week.
Sadlo responded in a Sept. 19 email:
“Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties has collaborated for many years as a trusted contract partner under the auspices of Contracted Human Services. We have continuously met and exceeded the delivery measurables set by Sarasota County and ranked #1 in youth education and #6 in teen programs under the Positive Youth Development category, out of over 50 exceptional contract providers last year.
“These essential services are part of a larger system of care that has been designed by the county to provide services for people who need them most. For elementary-aged youth, our model ensures a safe place to come after school and in the summers with programs focused on literacy, and health/wellness. Our award-winning teen programs focus on leadership training, workforce development, and college and career preparation.
“The lack of reimbursement for these critical services is an unfortunate outcome. One that we hope will be reconsidered,” Sadlo added.
The Suncoast Partnership issues
In the case of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, Thaxton pointed out in his email, Moran’s recommendation was to eliminate $225,000 that the nonprofit had sought for its homeless services coordination system, CSIS. The Sarasota City and County commissions accepted a number of recommendations by the Florida Housing Coalition in 2017, including the establishment of the coordinated entry system, as means of helping more people transition from life on the streets to permanent housing.
The Partnership funding proposal summary provided to the county commissioners said, “The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness (The Partnership) serves those who are at risk of homelessness and homeless individuals and families by providing program support and guidance to service providers who are members of the Sarasota/Manatee Continuum of Care (CoC). The Partnership is recognized by HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the State of Florida as the collaborative applicant and lead agency for HUD’s Continuum of Care grant, [the Florida Department of Children and Families’] Unified Contract,” and other grants. “As such, the Suncoast Partnership must provide and certify data to providers and numerous funders, and is responsible for successfully submitting the annual CoC application, rankings and projects. In addition, the Partnership educates the community and advocates for the homeless and near homeless, towards a long-term solution.”
Thaxton emphasized in his email, “This CSIS system is a requirement from HUD in order for the County to receive federal homeless funding.” He added, “So not only will Sarasota’s homeless children, families and veterans lose the many benefits of having a coordinated system of care, they could also lose millions (I stopped counting at five million) of dollars in federal and state funding that requires a Continuum of Care to have a CSIS system in place. Additionally, this defunding undermines the partnership with the City of Sarasota to mutually fund a coordinated system of support for the unhoused persons in both the City and unincorporated areas of the County,” Thaxton pointed out.
As the Partnership’s website explains, “The Community Services Information System (CSIS) is an electronic database used to accumulate information on the characteristics of those at risk of homelessness or already homeless, tracking service delivery by continuum members.
“The program was developed in the 1990s in response to a mandate by Congress … With enhancements over the past few years, providers are now able to refer clients to comprehensive housing projects, use effective case management tools and document outcomes through this system. Not only are we able to track participants … in projects funded by federal and state grants, CSIS is able to track all services provided for those who are homeless …,” the website says.
In a Sept. 20 press release, the Suncoast Partnership pointed out that the organization had received the county advisory council’s recommendation for the full amount it was seeking.
Then, referencing the 2017 Florida Housing Coalition recommendations, the release noted that the County Commission and the Sarasota City Commission also approved a joint plan, called Creating an Effective Homeless Crisis Response System, “to support and expand the efforts of the COC [Continuum of Care] in its mission.”
The release added that county “funding directly impacts public health, safety, and economic stability in Sarasota County as the dollars are used to coordinate and optimize efforts to prevent and reduce homelessness throughout our community.”
The release also underscored Thaxton’s assertion that the loss of the county financial support means “the community may be in jeopardy of losing millions of dollars in local, state, and federal funding.”
The release further noted, “These … vital programs helped reduce Sarasota’s population of individuals experiencing homelessness by over 33 percent since 2017 alone.
“We hope that the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners reconsiders this action,” the release concluded.
A new way of doing things
The process for awarding the annual funding to nonprofits for health care services has been modified over the past couple of years, at Commissioner Moran’s behest. That effort began after the board members voted in June 2021 — also at his recommendation — to establish a Mental Health Care Special District, though without any new dedicated funding for services provided under its aegis.
Following that action, the commissioners ended up establishing the Behavioral Health Advisory Council.
During the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 12, Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, presented the chair of that new board, as well as the chair of the Human Services Advisory Council. The members of both councils had submitted to the commissioners their rankings of the funding requests for the 2024 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — on the basis of commission-approved criteria.
A summary of each funding request was included in the agenda packet.
As Thaxton put it in his Sept. 17 email, the commissioners’ Sept. 12 votes “culminated an effort to overhaul the process for how the county supports its most needy citizens. The new system replaced a highly functional one that took decades and generations of commissioners to create. While there was, as there always will be, room for improvement, it was a model program founded on national best practices.”
Then Thaxton told the commissioners, “Last Tuesday’s vote demonstrates the inadequacies and failures of the new approach. While the former system was highly transparent with funding recommendations known well ahead of the final vote, the new system’s funding allocations were not made public until minutes before the vote. The role of local subject matter experts and the County’s professional staff have been minimized and they are no longer an integral or meaningful part of the new evaluation process. The prior approach provided objective review criteria to evaluate programs and funding amounts. The new review approach appears to be largely subjective with a scoring process that has resulted in programs successfully meeting the board-approved criteria and that were recommended for funding by the advisory committee but were denied funding without reason or explanation.”
The CASL question
During Moran’s Sept. 12 remarks regarding his revision of the lists for funding, he alluded to one reason for eliminating proposals submitted by Community Assisted & Supported Living (CASL).
On its website, CASL says, “Our mission is to provide safe, affordable, and permanent supportive housing for adults with developmental differences and mental health diagnosis. CASL sets up its families to succeed and be self-sufficient in their own lives and communities.”
In July 2022, the commissioners approved the sale of county surplus property located at 4644. N. Tamiami Trail to CASL and a second nonprofit, Blue Sky Communities of Tampa, to construct an affordable housing development with at least 96 dwelling units that would be priced at 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) of the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), or less.
Each year, HUD determines the AMI for each Metropolitan Statistical Area. This year, the amount for a family of four is $98,700.
The sale price of the county land was $1,950,000. CASL and Blue Sky Communities had been among six applicants submitting proposals for the site, which the county had marketed specifically for an affordable housing project.
Moran did indicate on Sept. 12 that he believed the commissioners should have another discussion about the CASL applications.
“With CASL,” Moran said, “it’s not a denial.”
Pointing out that the contracts go into effect with the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, Cutsinger asked about the timeline for reconsidering the CASL proposals.
It would not be by Oct. 1, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis replied. Likely, he said, it would be the board’s second regular meeting in October when those could be addressed. Nonetheless, Lewis noted, the county funding actually goes to the nonprofits in the form of reimbursements. Thus, Lewis also indicated, a later approval of CASL requests should not be a problem.