Survey underway to determine public view of potential creation of Mental Health Care Special District for Sarasota County

Commissioner Ziegler renews call for sunset date provision if board ultimately wins voter referendum approval and establishes district

(Editor’s note: This article was updated mid afternoon on Feb. 7 to include the direct link to the online survey.)

This is the timeline the County Commission would need to follow to get a referendum on a Mental Health Care Special District on the November 2020 ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Feb. 6, Sarasota County Health and Human Services Department staff planned to release a survey to the public regarding the proposal for a Sarasota County Mental Health Care Special District.

The timeline calls for people to be able to take the survey through Feb. 28. It will be available via the county’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and it will be included in the county’s weekly electronic newsletter, according to a staff memo provided to the County Commission in advance of its regular meeting on Feb. 4, which was held in Venice.

The survey will be promoted on the county’s Access Sarasota TV channel and on electronic message boards in the lobbies of major county facilities, the memo added.

The goal, the commission unanimously decided in December 2019, is to work toward the potential of holding a referendum on establishing a special district for the unincorporated areas of the county. Voters would be able to make known their feelings about such a district by marking their ballots during the November General Election.

The board members agreed in December 2019 that if they establish a district, it would be dependent, as provided for in the Florida Statutes; that means they would have oversight of its operations, including approval of its annual budgets.

Property owners would have to pay a special assessment each year to fund specific services under the aegis of the district.

One question on the survey staff has crafted lists seven types of services and asks respondents which they would support as recipients of the special tax revenue. That list includes “Hospitalization (inpatient) medication,” “Outpatient clinics,” “Residential mental health facilities,” and “Substance use disorder treatment.”

The final choice for an answer says, “I do not support an increase for any of these services.”

These are several of the questions on the survey. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Feb. 4, during another unanimous vote, the commission asked Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, to add one question to the proposed survey. That would ask each respondent whether the county should include a sunset date for the district, so it could not function in perpetuity. As commissioners explained their idea, a pending sunset date would necessitate analysis of how well the district has been functioning, leading to a determination of whether its renewal would be warranted.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler initially raised that issue during the Dec. 10, 2019 discussion. On Feb. 4, he renewed his desire for such a provision in the ordinance that would establish the district — if the board pursues the referendum and it passes.

Chair Michael Moran — who, in August 2019, broached the idea of creating a Mental Health Care Special District — made the Feb. 4 motion. That also authorized staff to distribute the survey.

Ziegler seconded the motion.

The survey may be found by visiting

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Henry told the commissioners that staff plans to provide a report to them in March regarding the survey results. Then, staff would appear before them in April to talk about details of the answers — and comments from stakeholder groups in the county — in seeking direction on how to proceed with plans for the district. Among their decisions would be specifying the types of services the special tax revenue would fund.

He added that he hoped the survey answers would give the board members plenty of information on which to base those decisions.

Along with distributing the survey to the public, the Feb. 4 staff memo said, staff will make presentations to the following stakeholder groups: Homeless Continuum of Care leadership; Community Alliance of Sarasota County; Behavioral Health Stakeholder’s Consortium; and the Acute Care System Task Force.

During a Feb. 4 presentation to the commission, Henry of Health and Human Services explained, “The survey is non-scientific in nature.” County staff drafted it and then asked faculty of the Institute of Government at the University of South Florida to review it, Henry noted.

The survey will ask each respondent to provide his or her zip code, he continued, and it will allow people to add comments.

Every respondent will be able to click on a link to a question-and-answer document with details about the county’s funding of mental health care services.

This is the question-and-answer document to which the survey will link. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Adhering to the timeline

After Henry concluded his remarks, and Ziegler raised the point about the sunset date, Chair Moran asked Henry whether the question could be added to the survey.

“I think we could add anything that the board desires,” Henry replied. However, he stressed that staff was working on a tight timeline within which to get the survey released, compile the answers and provide the board the March report. (In December 2019, staff reviewed the benchmarks that would have to be met to get the referendum on the November ballot.)

Commissioner Charles Hines suggested that the sunset date question could be posed during the upcoming stakeholders meetings. “I’m all in favor of it,” he added of Ziegler’s suggestion.

This graphic offers details about creation of a dependent district or approval of a dedicated funding stream through the county’s millage rate. The commissioners have endorsed a dependent model. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines did caution that he believes the period should not be as short as the four-year renewal schedule under which the Sarasota County School Board operates in seeking voter approval of a special millage rate to help pay for a wide variety of extra district initiatives.

Further, Hines talked of his desire to see the survey responses. The commissioners know how much funding they approve each year out of the county’s General Fund for mental health services, he pointed out. “Are we funding enough?” he asked. “I think everyone’s going to argue that what we currently fund isn’t enough.”

The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue. District financial staff says it is the board’s most constrained account, as it pays for the operations of many county departments, as well as those of constitutional officers, including the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.

Hines also noted a desire to ensure that funds dedicated to the special district would not be “swept” by future commissions to help pay for other projects. He added that the Legislature is known for taking money out of trust funds to plug funding gaps, because state laws and policies allow that practice.

“A lot of this is going to come down to philosophies,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out. (She served in the Florida House and Senate before her election to the commission in November 2016.)

With a special district, she continued, “You’ve got kind of a cordoned-off, protected species … and everybody else’s fighting over chum to the sharks …”

“We might just want to have a workshop on mental health, on the fact that [the district proposal likely will] be on the ballot,” Detert suggested.

“I agree with everything that’s been said,” Commissioner Alan Maio told his colleagues.