When – after months of debate and a postponement due to the pandemic – the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners approved, in July 2021, a special tax district to generate a dedicated funding stream for mental health services, the community local behavioral health department was thrilled.
In a state that has long ranked among the bottom in the nation in per capita spending on mental health, this was a proactive and innovative approach that would put Sarasota at the forefront of responding to the escalating mental health needs fueled by everything from the pandemic to the economy.
Acknowledging they had the mandate, but not the expertise, to determine the best allocation of taxpayers’ money, the commissioners convened a task force of behavioral health experts to identify the biggest gaps in local services. and prioritize the proposals that would have the greatest 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 solicit and assess funding applications from local providers. From July to September of this year, these board members diligently evaluated 35 proposals, conducting site visits and determining which best met the criteria approved by the commission.
Two weeks ago, BHAC President Andrea Blanch, Ph.D. psychologist and longtime mental health consultant, returned to the commission chambers to present the council’s recommendations to fund 31 social service programs and mental health priorities for a total of $9.8 million for fiscal year 2023. They also recommended reviving the remaining $229,366 of funds available to fulfill one priority — increased access to outpatient psychiatric care — none of the proposals provided.
Blanch got through less than halfway through her presentation before being interrupted by a flood of objections, particularly from two commissioners – Mike Moran, who proposed the tax district first and outgoing commissioner Christian Ziegler – questioning the validity and legitimacy of the selection process they themselves had approved.
Ziegler, who is also the state’s Republican Party vice chairman and chose not to run for office, suggested that insufficient vetting was done on vendors requesting funds. While he didn’t name the one nonprofit he called a “bad organization,” it didn’t take a genius to identify it as ALSO Youth, which for 30 years has been supporting and serves the LGBTQ community of teens and young adults – a population at particularly high risk for mental health crisis and suicide.
His objection? “This organization” had “worked to exclude parents from discussion of their children’s gender,” opposed Governor Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education Act (the so-called ” Don’t Say Gay”) and supported events. like the recent Venice Pride festival.
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“It’s an organization . . . that I don’t think shares the values of this community,” said Ziegler, whose wife, Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget, was recently re-elected to the Sarasota County School Board. after DeSantis’ endorsement “…I’m outraged to see them here.”
Moran’s opposition was directed to proposals that had been rejected because they did not match the priority of the working group under which they had applied. While he was also careful to refrain from naming names, one such organization turned out to be Teen Court – of which Moran’s wife, Lori, is the chief operating officer.
Blanch never got to finish. After a long debate, President Al Maio concluded that “the answers that the commission obtains are not complete enough to satisfy us”. Then the board voted to postpone acceptance of one of the recommendations until the incoming new commissioners – Mark Smith and Joseph Neunder – were seated and a January workshop could be held to update them. and reconsider the selection process.
Needless to say, the members of the advisory board and the organizations requesting funds were not satisfied.
Previously funded behavioral health providers have been operating without a contract since October 1, when they began their fiscal years. (They are reimbursed in arrears for services rendered.) As no action would have left them entirely without funding, the commissioners voted to release a third of the 2023 funds so that their contracts could be extended until the end of January. But postponement and limbo affect their ability to budget, plan, or implement new programs and require all contracts to be rewritten, perhaps more than once.
Advisory board members, who donated 526 volunteer hours over the past six months to augment a behavioral health budget that hasn’t seen an increase in a decade, were also appalled. Although Blanch later diplomatically called the postponement a “road shock, not something that should derail us from our larger mission”, others said they felt “slapped” and “ignored”.
A frustrated Jennifer Johnston, director of community leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, who has spent five years working on this issue, asked bluntly, “When are we going to take action?
The need for increased mental health services is even more urgent now than when Moran first proposed the tax district in 2019. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the economy and Hurricane Ian, rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people have increased. As the board kicks in, it may once again down the road, people are suffering and, yes, even dying.
It is deeply disheartening for Commissioners to delay further after what has already been a painstaking, years-long process guided by the most knowledgeable mental health experts in our region. For them to do so because of their own political biases and personal connections is unconscionable.
Contact Carrie Seidman at carrie.se[email protected] or 505-238-0392.