When — after months of debate and delays due to the pandemic — the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners approved, in July 2021, a special tax district to generate a funding stream intended for mental health services, the local behavioral health community was ecstatic.
In a state that has long ranked near the bottom of the nation in per capita mental health spending, this was a proactive and innovative approach that would put Sarasota ahead in responding to escalating mental health needs fueled by everything from the pandemic. for the economy.
Recognizing that they have the mandate, but not the expertise to determine the best apportionment of this tax money, the commissioners assembled a task force of behavioral health experts to identify the biggest gaps in local services and prioritize proposals that would have the largest and most immediate impact.
It took the board more than a year to accept the task force’s findings, after which they appointed seven members of the Behavioral Health Advisory Council (BHAC) to solicit and evaluate funding requests from local providers. From July to September this year, these board members diligently evaluated 35 proposals, conducted site visits and determined which criteria best matched the criteria approved by the committee.
Two weeks ago, BHAC President Andrea Blanche, Ph.D. The psychologist and longtime mental health consultant, M.D., returned to committee rooms to present the board’s recommendations for funding 31 human services and mental health priority programs totaling $9.8 million for fiscal year 2023. They also recommended reintroducing the remaining $229,366 of funds available for one fill. Priority – Increasing access to psychiatric outpatient care – None of the proposals made.
Blanche got less than halfway through her presentation before it was cut short by a torrent of objections, notably from two commissioners—Mike Moran, who proposed the tax district in the first place, and outgoing commissioner Christian Ziegler—questioning the validity and legitimacy of the selection process they had agreed to. by themselves.
Ziegler, who is also vice chair of the state Republican Party and who has opted not to run for re-election, noted that not enough vetting of service providers soliciting funds has been done. Although he didn’t name the nonprofit he described as a “bad organization,” it didn’t take a genius to define it as also Youth, which for 30 years has supported and served the LGBTQ community of teens and young adults — a population at particularly high risk for crisis. Mental health and suicide.
his objection? This organization “has worked to keep parents away from discussing the sex of their children,” opposing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights to Education Act (the so-called “Don’t Say Like Me” bill) and supporting events such as the recent Venice Pride festival.
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“This is an organization . . . said Ziegler, whose wife, Bridget, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, was recently re-elected to the Sarasota County School Board following DeSantis’ approval,” said Ziegler, whose wife, Bridget, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said, “I don’t think I share the values of this community.” … I’m angry to see them over here.”
Moran’s opposition was directed towards proposals that were rejected for not meeting the task force priority under which they applied. Though he was also careful to refrain from naming names, one of those organizations just so happens to be Teen Court — for which Moran’s wife, Laurie, serves as operations manager.
Blanche was never finished. After much discussion, Chairman Al Maio concluded that “the answers the committee is getting are not complete enough to satisfy us.” The board then voted to hold off on accepting any of the recommendations until the two new commissioners — Mark Smith and Josef Neuder — are seated and a workshop can be held in January to make them “quick” and revisit the selection process.
Needless to say, the members of the Advisory Board and the organizations that requested the funding 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 paid arrears for services rendered). Since no measure would leave them fully unfunded, the commissioners voted to release a third of the 2023 funds so their contracts could be extended through the end of January. But procrastination and forgetting affect their ability to budget, plan, or implement new programming and require all contracts to be rewritten, possibly more than once.
Advisory board members, who donated 526 volunteer hours over the past six months to bolster a behavioral health budget that hasn’t seen an increase in a decade, were also appalled. Although Blanche later diplomatically described the delay as “a bump in the road, 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 for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, who has spent five years working on the issue, bluntly asked, “When are we going to start working?”
The need to increase mental health services is more urgent now than when Moran first proposed the tax district in 2019. Depression, anxiety, and suicide rates among young adults have soared because of the pandemic, the economy, and Hurricane Ian. As he kicks the board, it can cause people to suffer again, even to death.
To have commissioners delayed after what has already been a painstaking, years-long process under the guidance of the most experienced mental health experts in our region is deeply frustrating. For them to do so because of their political biases and personal associations is unreasonable.
Contact Carrie Seidman at email@example.com or 0392-238505.