When — after months of debate and a postponement due to the pandemic — the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners approved a special tax district in July 2021 to generate a dedicated funding stream for mental health services, the local behavioral health community cheered. was.
In a state that has long ranked near the bottom of the nation in per capita spending on mental health, it was a proactive and innovative approach that placed Sarasota at the forefront of responding to the growing mental health needs that have been fueled by the pandemic. Everything happens for a reason. to the economy.
Recognizing that they had the mandate but not the expertise to determine the best distribution of those tax dollars, the commissioners hired behavioral health experts to identify the biggest gaps in local services and set priorities for those proposals. Convened a task force that would have the largest and most immediate impact.
It took more than a year for the board to accept the task force’s findings, after which it appointed a seven-member Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) to try and assess funding requests from local providers. Between July and September of this year, those council members diligently evaluated 35 proposals, visited sites and determined which best met the criteria accepted by the commission.
Two weeks ago, BHAC President Andrea Blanche, a Ph.D. The psychologist and longtime mental health advisor returned to the commission chambers to present the Council’s recommendations on funding 31 human services programs and mental health priorities for a total of $9.8 million for fiscal year 2023. Priority – Increase access to psychiatric outpatient care – None of the proposals provided.
Blanche got less than halfway through her presentation before she was cut off by a stream of objections, most notably from two commissioners – Mike Moran, who proposed the tax district in the first place, and outgoing commissioner Christian Ziegler. – questioned the validity and legality of. He himself approved the selection process.
Ziegler, who is also the vice chairman of the state Republican Party and has decided not to seek re-election, suggested that insufficient vetting was done on providers requesting the money. While he didn’t name the one nonprofit he singled out as a “bad organization,” it didn’t take a genius to identify it as ALSO Youth, which has worked for 30 years to support LGBTQ teens and young adults. The community is supported and served – a mental health crisis and a population at particularly high risk for suicide.
his objection? “This organization” had “worked to exclude parents from discussing the sex of their children,” protested the government. Ron DeSantis’s Parents Rights in Education Act (the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill) and supported events like the recent Venice Pride Festival.
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“It’s an organization . . . I don’t think I share the values of this community,” said Ziegler, whose wife, Bridget, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, was recently named Sarasota County School Director. DeSantis was re-elected after the board endorsed him. “…I’m furious to see him here.”
Moran’s protest was directed towards proposals that were rejected for not meeting the priority of the task force to which they applied. Though he was also careful to refrain from naming, one of those organizations just happened to be Teen Court — which Moran’s wife Lori serves as COO.
Blanche never finished. After much debate, Chairman Al Mayo concluded “the answers the commission is receiving are not sufficient to satisfy us.” The board then voted to postpone accepting any recommendations until the new incoming commissioners – Mark Smith and Joseph Neander – sat down and held a January workshop to bring them “up to speed” and reconsider the selection process. Could have gone
Needless to say, both the members of the advisory council and the organization requesting the money were not happy.
The previously funded behavioral health providers have been operating without a contract since October 1, when their fiscal year began. (They are reimbursed in arrears for services rendered.) Since no action would leave them completely without funds, the commissioners voted to release a third of the 2023 funds to honor their contracts. Can be extended till the end of January. But postponements and in limbo affect their ability to budget, plan or implement new programming and possibly require rewriting of all contracts more than once.
Members of the advisory council, who have donated 526 volunteer hours over the past six months to promote a behavioral health budget that hadn’t seen an increase in a decade, were also disappointed. Although Blanche later diplomatically called the postponement “a road bump, not something that should derail us from our greater mission,” others said they felt “slapped” and “ignored.”
A frustrated Jennifer Johnson, director of community leadership for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, who has spent five years working on the issue, asked bluntly, “When do we take action?”
The need to increase mental health services is more urgent now than it was in 2019 when Moran first proposed the tax district. Affected by the pandemic, the economy and Hurricane Ian, rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people have increased. While the board kicks it can down the road people are still suffering and yes, even dying.
It is extremely disappointing for the commissioners to delay further after a painstaking years long process guided by some of the most knowledgeable mental health experts in our field. It is unconscionable for them to do so because of their own political prejudices and personal relationships.
Contact Carrie Seidman at [email protected] or 505-238-0392.