On 3-2 vote, City Commission agrees to send letter to County Commission in support of Mental Health Care Special District

Mayor Brody argues against proposed county tax increase for services and demands details about programs that the district will provide

Mayor Hagen Brody (center) makes a point during the Aug. 16 City Commission meeting at City Hall. News Leader image

On the night of Aug. 16, it took slightly more than 30 seconds for Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie to decide how to vote on a proposed letter of support for the planned Sarasota County Mental Health Care Special District.

Yet, as it turned out, Battie proved the swing vote in a 3-2 decision in favor of a letter that Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch had asked her colleagues to consider.

Commissioner Liz Alpert made the motion to send the letter to the County Commission, and Ahearn-Koch seconded it. Alpert told her colleagues she felt the district’s dedicated funding for mental health initiatives likely would result in lower expenses in the future.

Ahearn-Koch talked about how much of a financial burden the city has been shouldering, especially in regard to helping homeless individuals with mental health problems.

However, both Mayor Hagen Brody and Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo argued that the County Commission could end up approving a 0.10 mills tax to pay for services through the district in the first year of operation. They contended that they could not support the letter without knowing ahead of time what services would be provided and whether any new facilities would be proposed in the city.

Battie initially voiced support for the letter. Yet, he said he did not want to see any new facilities or services in his district, District 1, because that is the location of many of the providers in the county, especially in terms of services for the homeless.

“But Commissioner, where do you think these services are gong to be proposed?” Brody asked Battie, referring to the county district.

Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie offers comments during the debate. News Leader image

“They’d better not be in District 1!” Battie responded.

“There are no plans to build any facility in District 1,” City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out.

“If history tells us anything,” Arroyo said, “every mental health initiative is going to involve District 1.”

Alpert finally asked City Attorney Robert Fournier to comment on the fact that the City Commission would have its say on any county proposals for new facilities in District 1.

“Well, certainly if [a new structure will be built] on city property,” the City Commission has a vote, Fournier responded.

Then Battie asked Fournier what would happen if the County Commission wanted to construct a building on a county-owned parcel in the city limits.

“It’s their call,” Fournier responded, referring to the county commissioners, “unless it’s a zoning issue.”

Even then, Brown explained, county staff would have to go through the regular city process for proposed construction, including responding to any questions or concerns the city’s Development Review Committee raises. (That committee has members representing the city departments and divisions involved in land-use and zoning decisions.)

During the approximately 48-minute discussion on Aug. 16 — the last item on the City Commission’s agenda — Commissioner Ahearn-Koch stressed that the letter supports the concept of the Mental Health Care Special District. The draft said nothing about the potential increase in taxes, she added.

“It’s a taxing district,” Brody emphasized. “That’s exactly what it is. It’s not in theory.”

On July 14, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to set their not-to-exceed millage rate for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. Commissioner Michael Moran, who initially proposed the district in 2019, made the motion to include the extra 0.10 mills to fund mental health services provided through that new district. Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded the motion, and Chair Alan Maio joined them in the majority on the vote.

Maio noted that day that county staff had advised him that the average residential property in the county is valued at $205,000. Therefore, he continued, an extra 0.10 mills would represent an additional tax payment of $20.50 per year for the owner of such property.

Both County Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Ron Cutsinger opposed Moran’s motion, saying they were against the tax increase that the board members, in late March, had directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and staff to build into the 2022 fiscal year budget.

During the county commissioners’ July 14 debate, Moran stressed that he and his colleagues would have additional opportunities to discuss the potential tax increase before they approved the budget in late September, following a second public hearing.

The county commissioners are scheduled to conduct one more budget workshop prior to their September hearings. That workshop is set for Aug. 27, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant confirmed this week for The Sarasota News Leader.

These are part of the powers of the Mental Health Care Special District. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A focus on lack of details

During the City Commission’s Aug. 16 discussion, Mayor Brody insisted on knowing the details of how any new tax revenue would be spent before he could offer support for the district.

“I have a problem with this [proposed letter] because we don’t have any idea what the funding is going to go for at this point, and there’s nobody here … from the county.”

Brody added that he and his colleagues already had voted in July to approve a “rolled-back” millage rate. It is lower than the rate for the current fiscal year because the value of city property grew this year, based on documentation that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office provided to the state and local government leaders.

Brody also read a list of other taxes that city property owners have to pay, including those for the county’s Mosquito Control District, debt service on the $65 million in bonds voters approved in 2018 for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota, Sarasota County School Board taxes, and the Sarasota Memorial Hospital tax.

Addressing Jennifer Johnston, senior community investment officer of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice — who was present to urge the board members to approve the proposed letter — Brody began, “You’re asking …” He sighed and then continued, “the county to add another taxing authority on our city residents for this [district].”

Johnston pointed out that the letter did not indicate approval of a new tax. She added that the County Commission would make its final decision on extra millage before it approves its 2022 fiscal year budget.

City Manager Brown pointed out later that a task force organized by county Health Officer Chuck Henry to assess gaps in mental health services countywide, and offer recommendations on district services, is not scheduled to present its findings until November, at the earliest.

These are the members of the county task force working on needs assessments and service gaps. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Therefore, Brown noted, the County Commission will have to make its decision on any extra millage rate prior to that presentation.

Opening the discussion

When Brody turned to Ahearn-Koch to introduce the agenda item, she told her colleagues that the County Commission “still has some hurdles left to go,” referring to a final decision on whether to impose a tax to fund services through the special district.

“It’s a bigger picture issue,” she continued of the district. “We all play a role. We are very involved in the homeless situation in our city and the region.”

Ahearn-Koch added that she felt it would behoove the city commissioners to send “a letter of full support” to the County Commission for the establishment of the district.

The draft of the letter in the city commissioners’ agenda packet said they “commend Sarasota County’s leadership illustrated by the recent vote to establish a Mental Health Special Dependent District.” It also noted that the letter showed the city board’s “official support for Sarasota County’s efforts to approve a dedicated millage and to fund a Mental Health Special Dependent District.”

This is the draft letter in the Aug. 16 agenda packet. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Johnston of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation addressed the city commissioners, on behalf of the children and adults who are on “a long waiting list” to get help, through counseling, for example, and those trying to find “a safe place to go.”

Mental health issues were a concern before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Johnston pointed out, and the situation “has only worsened.”

The Foundation undertakes a “scan” — or, survey — every two years of the top priorities of county residents, she explained. In 2017, 2019 and this year, she continued, improving mental health care for youth and adults was a top priority, she added.

This is a graphic in the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s report on top community priorities for 2019-2020. Image courtesy of the Foundation

Data has shown that “early intervention is essential to reduce the crisis services” and the expense that community residents bear, Johnston told the commissioners.

The county suicide rate, its number of drug-related deaths among those ages 25 to 64, and its rate of drug use among high school students, Johnston emphasized, are higher than the state’s averages.

Referring to the special district, she added, “We know that a dedicated and sustainable funding source, if spent wisely, will help our families and children get the assistance they so badly need.”

Brody told her that it is his understanding that the county has been spending about $9 million per year out of its budget for mental health services. If the County Commission wants to increase that figure, he said, then it can do so on its own without implementing a higher millage rate.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for the actual amount, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester reported in an Aug. 18 email that Health Officer Henry said the total amount the county spends on services through its Health and Human Services Department is about $5 million per year.

This is a 2019 Sarasota County document offering facts about mental health care services. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On multiple occasions during the Aug. 16 discussion, Mayor Brody repeated his stance against supporting a tax increase.

Vice Mayor Arroyo concurred with Brody that it is “too early” to offer support of the district.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch discusses the letter on Aug. 16. News Leader image

“I am frankly shocked at some of the comments,” Commissioner Ahearn-Koch said of Brody’s and Arroyo’s statements. “I don’t know how you can say you support mental health and being proactive treating it and not support a letter to the county,” she added. “We have been asking the county for years to help us with this issue, so that it’s decentralized. … This is the way to do it.”

Commissioner Alpert pointed out that the money dedicated to providing mental health services countywide “has to be at a tremendous amount to make a difference, which can result in a tax increase anyway. … I think to not support this effort is just pennywise and pound foolish going forward …”

Alpert noted that funds go toward helping the homeless and persons who take overdoses of pain medication, as well as to deal with crime related to individuals’ mental health problems. As demonstrated in another Florida community, Alpert said, dedicating money to mental health services through a special district will lead to lower expenses in the future.

“We keep bearing the brunt of these things,” Ahearn-Koch stressed. “We increase our services. … We need help from the county.”

Yet, Brody retorted, “To just say, ‘Yeah, raise the taxes for mental health and throw a bunch of platitudes at us about suicide and drugs and [the] homeless’ — you cannot tax your way out of those things. … If you’re going to make an impact, you have to have details.”

Brody added, “If there’s a plan that makes sense … then I’ll listen.”