Board members voted 3-2 in July to add an extra one-tenth of a mill to the rate to fund services in Mental Health Care Special District
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Sept. 21 to provide a revised figure representing the amount of money the proposed 0.10 mills tax for the Mental Health Care Special District would have raised for the 2022 fiscal year.
On July 14, the Sarasota County commissioners split on approval of the county’s “not-to-exceed” millage rate for publication on the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office sends out in August.
Having committed themselves publicly to a stance against raising taxes, Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Ron Cutsinger voted against including an extra one-tenth of a mill in the overall rate for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.
The additional funds that that uptick would generate — an estimated $6.5 million — would be dedicated to a Mental Health Care Special District whose establishment the commission approved unanimously in June, the prevailing board majority agreed. (That figure was provided to the commissioners in the spring. The updated amount, based on the state-mandated July 1 report that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office turned in to state officials regarding 2021 county property values, is $6.7 million, The Sarasota News Leader learned from Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management.)
Their support for the district had not wavered, Ziegler and Cutsinger indicated in July, but raising the millage rate was a step they could not take, they stressed at that time.
On Aug. 27, with Chair Alan Maio passing the gavel to Vice Chair Ziegler to make the motion, the board members unanimously chose to eliminate the 0.10 mills from the rate for the 2022 fiscal year. Even though property owners would be paying just $10 more per $1,000 of their property value, Maio pointed out, the higher millage rate is not needed at this time.
The revised overall rate, Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), will be 3.4561, which will be a drop of .0039 mills from the rate for this fiscal year.
The decrease, she explained, “[is] all related to The Legacy Trail.”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, “We got such a good rate on The Legacy Trail debt,” thanks to the work of the Office of the County Attorney, the OFM staff, and the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller.
In November 2018, voters approved the issuance of $65 million in county bonds to pay for the North Extension of the Trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota and to cover the expense of a connector from Venice to North Port.
Referencing Lewis’ and Radtke’s remarks, Maio noted “the great interest rates that we’re getting, [which show] up again and again for us.”
OFM staff regularly works on measures to reduce the county’s bond debts.
Awaiting more details on mental health expenditures
During his remarks, Maio also noted that, earlier this year, the commissioners charged county Health Officer Chuck Henry with creating a task force comprising what board members called “subject matter experts” to delve into the county’s mental health and substance abuse services and determine where gaps exist. Henry initially told the commissioners that that report would not be ready until sometime in November, Maio continued.
That group’s work, the commissioners agreed, would guide them in how to spend funds through the new district, which they will oversee.
Subsequently, Maio said on Aug. 27, when he asked for an update on the timeline for the completion of that report, Henry told him that it would be early spring before the task force members could complete it. Maio also pointed out that spring will not begin until March 20, 2022.
Therefore, Maio added, he did not believe the commissioners would see that report until sometime in May 2022, and it would be June 2022 before they would cast any votes on funding allocations on the basis of that document.
By then, Maio continued, only three months would be left in the 2022 fiscal year — July, August and September.
“I personally have no intention,” he said, “of voting to push through that entire amount of money [that would be raised by the .10 mills]” with only one-quarter of the fiscal year left.
Having met “no less than 20 times or more” with County Administrator Lewis and other members of staff, Maio pointed out, he believes that staff can find, from other county budget sources, one-fourth of the amount that the 0.10 mills would raise. (Maio used the figure of $6.4 million on Aug. 27.) A quarter of $6.4 million amount would be $1.6 million, he noted.
Near the end of every fiscal year, he explained, staff undertakes what it calls “sweeps,” a process of finding unspent funds that were included in the budget. Much of the money turned up through that exercise, he added, ends up back in the county’s General Fund, which is the most flexible source for spending for projects or other purposes whose needs arise during a given fiscal year.
He also noted that staff has a long record of spending less than the budget amounts the commission approves each September, following public hearings.
“I really think there’s enough — $1.6 million — that we can find,” Maio said, without raising the millage rate for FY 2022.
Then he asked County Administrator Lewis if adding that amount into the average funds budgeted for mental health and substance abuse services would lead to a reduction in the overall expenditures to providers.
“No, sir,” Lewis replied. “You’re actually still increasing [the amount] over the [funding for] the current year, even under that scenario.”
Lewis also confirmed that Maio was on target with the task force’s reporting timeline.
Then, referring to County Administration and the staff of the Office of Financial Management, Maio asked Lewis again, “You’re all confident that if we didn’t raise the millage rate, we would not be reducing what we spent [this fiscal year]? We would actually be increasing it?”
“Yes,” Lewis responded.
“This is the key piece for today,” Maio said.
‘A great solution’
After Commissioner Cutsinger seconded Maio’s motion to eliminate the 0.10 mills uptick, Cutsinger said, “I think that’s a great solution here. We’re increasing our spending,” but keeping the millage rate stable.
“I like the idea that we get the task force [report] completed” and then have time to discuss the details of it, Cutsinger added, to guide funding decisions going forward for the Mental Health Care Special District.
“I’m just thrilled to be hearing this,” Commissioner Michael Moran added.
Moran was the board member who proposed the establishment of the district, as allowed by the Florida Statutes.
The task force’s information, Moran noted, will provide details about funding gaps, as well as overlaps in county spending. That group’s work will guide the commissioners, he said, in “looking out for the taxpayer dollars [for mental health and substance abuse services].”
“My biggest issue with this,” Commissioner Ziegler added, “was really the tax increase portion … This sounds like a good solution to me.”
Ziegler also emphasized, “Just to be very clear … throughout this entire process, I think all five of us have been very committed to mental health [services].”
“I’m glad that we have a 5-0 vote on mental health,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “I think that that’s a game changer for the community,” she added, referring to the district, of which she has been an adamant supporter.