Vote on whether to raise Sarasota County millage rate to help pay for new mental health and substance abuse services put off until July 14

Commissioners Ziegler and Cutsinger voice opposition to adding one-tenth of a mill to tax bills for 2022 fiscal year

This graphic, included in budget materials for the county commissioners this week, shows a potential addition of one-tenth of a mill to the rate for 2022. The graphic also compares changes in the millage rates over the past couple of decades. ‘ESLPP’ refers to the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, which voters fund with a 0.25-mill tax. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler firmly against any tax raise for the 2022 fiscal year, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger indicating like-mindedness, the board members agreed this week to wait until next month to decide on funding for the Mental Health Care Special District they have created.

During a regular meeting set for July 14, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, they are scheduled to vote on the “not-to-exceed” county millage rate for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

Lewis reminded them that they even if they included a tentative one-tenth-of-a-mill increase in the next budget, to pay for services provided through the district, they could eliminate that uptick before approving their FY 2022 budget in late September.

On June 22, during the first of two budget workshops this week, Commissioner Nancy Detert indicated she was prepared to make a motion to give Lewis direction to proceed with planning for the additional one-tenth-of-a-mill tax.

Commissioner Michael Moran, who was the champion of the special district, never formally advocated for the tax increase, but he stressed that if the board proceeded in that direction, it could put into a reserve account any proceeds that it chose not to spend during the 2022 fiscal year.

In fact, Lewis told the board members, “The expenditure [of the funds] shows on our reserves,” in the budget model provided to the board for the workshops this week.

In response to a question from Detert, Lewis noted that the one-tenth of a mill would be expected to generate $6.5 million.

Lewis also pointed out that a task force organized by Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, at the commissioner’s direction, likely would not have a report ready for them until January 2022 in regard to recommendations for programs that should be provided through the special district. That group has begun meeting, Lewis added.

Henry told the commissioners on June 8 that he had found five “subject matter experts,” as Moran had characterized them, who were agreeable to serving on the task force. “I’m very excited about their capabilities,” Henry added.

Formally, the task force members are assessing gaps in mental health care and substance abuse services in the county.

Wariness and optimism

When Commissioner Cutsinger asked for clarification on June 22 that the board had not taken a vote on raising taxes by one-tenth of a mill, Lewis reminded him that the increase was the assumption that the majority of commissioners had indicated staff should make in building the budget model for FY 2022.

“Our property values are soaring,” Cutsinger pointed out. Moreover, he noted, the county already has received $42.1 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, with an equal amount due next year. (The act was signed into law on March 11; it “provides “$1.9 trillion to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including addressing public health and economic impacts,” the commissioners learned during a June 9 presentation.)

This side explains facets of the latest federal program to assist with the recovery from the pandemic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Cutsinger then asked for clarification that “preliminary guidance” from the U.S. Department of the Treasury said that some of the funds could be used for mental health programs.

“So far,” Lewis replied, “we do believe that certain types of mental health/substance abuse [initiatives] might be eligible [for the funding].” However, Lewis stressed, “They haven’t done the final rules yet. It seems like once a week, we get new guidance.”

The county also expects to receive funding as a result of a multi-state lawsuit involving the opioid crisis, Cutsinger pointed out. “I can’t think of a more appropriate use of that money than dealing with behavioral health and addiction.”

“I certainly would like to look at other sources” for funding the Mental Health Care Special District, in lieu of raising taxes, Cutsinger said.

Commissioner Ziegler concurred. Although he did not mention the Biden Administration by name, Ziegler referred to its members, saying, “I don’t see them taking mental health out of that [new federal COVID-19 assistance program].”

“When I ran for County Commission,” Ziegler stressed, “I made a pledge and I made a commitment to not raise taxes.”

Then Ziegler asked whether staff has any idea how much money Henry’s task force might propose spending on mental health and substance abuse initiatives.

“No, sir,” Lewis responded.

Ziegler said he was aware of the argument that the federal money should not be used for programs of the special district, as that federal assistance will not be recurring. Still, he pointed out, the federal resources could be tapped until the county task force makes its recommendations.

He stressed again, “For me, I just can’t raise taxes.”

Commissioner Mike Moran. News Leader image

“Some would make the argument simply that taxes are being raised by [the growth in the county’s property tax value],” Commissioner Moran pointed out. (See the related article in this issue.)

If property values go up, property owners will pay more at the same millage rate that was in effect the previous year, local government finance staff members have explained. The only way to prevent that, they say, is to implement the “rolled-back” millage rate — a lower rate that accounts for the rise in property values.

Commissioner Detert voiced a statement similar to Moran’s. “Your tax bill isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, and everybody know it,” she said. “What you have going on, really, is verbal gymnastics. … This year’s budget is more than last year’s budget, so you’re increasing the money every single year, whether you say you are [or not].”

Moreover, she pointed out, Sarasota County for years has had one of the lowest tax rates in the state. “We are lucky that our property values have appreciated so much.”

“We make very difficult decisions,” Moran added. “People [planning to move to Sarasota County] are buying homes sight unseen … which is raising the value of your property,” he continued. “In some way, that could get spun as a negative thing. I would argue that it’s just the opposite.”

He reminded his colleagues that they voted to establish the Mental Health Care Special District. [The June 8 decision was unanimous.] “It rises above the normalcompeting priorities that we discuss on a daily basis,” he emphasized of the district.

When Commissioner Detert asked how much the county already pays annually for mental health services, Lewis told her that approximately $9 million goes to the Health and Human Services Department each year, “and a portion of that is [dedicated to] mental health.”
Lewis said he would find out the exact figure Detert was seeking.

“I would like to see how much we can round up,” Detert responded, referring to the board’s annual payments for mental health and substance abuse services provided by nonprofit organizations in the community, including First Step of Sarasota, she said.

Delaying the decision

The commissioners should look at spending through the new district as an investment, Moran pointed out. The return on that investment will be measurable, he added.

For example, he continued, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has more than 60 programs in the jail that have been established in an effort to prevent recidivism. A number of those initiatives focus on mental health and substance abuse issues, he noted. “The taxpayer’s getting a huge return on their investment with that.”

Then Chair Alan Maio told his colleagues, “I can’t imagine we start spending [money in the Mental Health Care Special district] before April 1, [2022],” which will be the first day of the second half of that fiscal year.

This would not be the first time, he noted, that the commissioners delayed initial expenditures for a new program.

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

During a follow-up discussion on June 23, Maio indicated it might be May or June before the first money is needed for Mental Health Care Special District programs, depending on the task force’s report.

Maio added that when he ran for re-election in 2018, he told constituents that he would not raise taxes unless “there were a special event.”

“I take my commitment and promise to the voters seriously,” Commissioner Ziegler maintained.

Referring to county administrative staff members, Moran said, “They need some number, not-to-exceed,” for the millage rate vote on July 14. If the one-tenth-of-a-mill figure stayed in the FY 2022 budget, he added, that could be adjusted for any future fiscal year.

Maio pointed out that staff had advised him that the average residential property in the county is valued at $205,000. Therefore, he said, a one-tenth-of-a-mill tax increase would mean the owner would pay an extra “twenty dollars and 50 cents a year.”

If a home were valued at $1 million, Maio continued, that would mean an additional $105 dollars in county taxes.

Maio added that he believes the July 1 final tax value the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office will deliver to the county will be higher than the 6.3% increase released by the June 1 deadline for the preliminary value. The board members will have that July 1 figure before they have to vote on the not-to-exceed millage rate on July 14, he reminded his colleagues.

On June 23, during the final discussion this week on the district funding, Commissioner Cutsinger sought clarification from County Administrator Lewis that the annual Truth in Millage notices [TRIM] that Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates’ office sends out will not be mailed until after the board members set their not-to-exceed millage rate.

Moreover, Cutsinger continued, “We as a board have not voted [on the one-tenth-of-a-mill increase]?”

That is all correct, Lewis replied. The commissioners simply had given him direction to prepare the 2022 fiscal year budget model with the extra funds, Lewis reiterated his statement from the previous day.

Finally, Chair Maio indicated that, depending on what happens during the millage rate vote on July 14, the commission might choose to cancel a final budget workshop tentatively set for late August.