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Mike Moran targets United Way

Written by on Thursday, March 21, 2024

County defunding prompts private donation to rescue 211 helpline.


By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Mar. 20, 2024

Host: The meeting of the Sarasota County Commission yesterday started with pushback against Mike Moran’s crusade to cut county funding for social service non-profits. It was about “just” $109,000, but the biggest non-profit social service provider in the region drew as a line in the sand county defunding of a 211 helpline. The discussion seemed to be about who is to blame for the shutdown of the helpline, but the bigger question boils down to this: Should government continue to play a role in funding basic social services, or should they be funded entirely by generous donors, as Moran seems to suggest? However, any discussion about the sense or nonsense of public-private partnerships was cut short by an unexpected twist. Our news team was there to report about it.

Johannes Werner: Last week, the United Way Suncoast announced that it will shut down the 211 helpline on April 1 for Sarasota residents, after the county commission defunded it last fall. Apparently reacting to this, Commissioner Mark Smith had put the issue on the agenda.

Reading between the lines of the announcement, the United Way seemed determined to defend the principle of public-private partnerships as providers of basic social services, rather than turning them over entirely to private charity.

Three representatives of other non-profits started the meeting with public comment in support of United Way’s helpline. Then, the Chief Impact Officer for United Way took the stand. Bronwyn Beightol explained the importance of the helpline, that public-private partnerships provide accountability, and why public funding should be restored.

Commissioner Moran responded to Beightol by cross-examining her over why she thought United Way was unable to find the $109,000 for the helpline.

Mike Moran: This has nothing to do with the $109,000 that the local United Way — I believe is out of your facility — has over $45,000,000 in cash and securities on the last IRS reporting … and the simple question is: Why would they ask the Sarasota County taxpayer to burden that cost — or carry that cost, I should say — when you guys have $45 million in cash and securities? Just any general comment of how to reply to that.

Bronwyn Beightol

Bronwyn Beightol: I’m very happy to reply to that, and I can certainly reply to that in more detail later. However, our budget was set well before this decision was made, and we’re accountable to our donors, to our board, to our financial advisors to do what is needed to be done with the resources that are available. I’m sure that you understand that with the $2 billion budget for Sarasota County. We’re not necessarily asking … It’s not about the money — yes, it is about the money. It’s about public-private partnerships that ensure accountability for services that impact all Sarasota County residents.

JW: Moran then questioned Beightol over media talking points her organization sent out last week.

MM: Was it your office that sent out the media release to all the local nonprofits in town and the media, and it said is one of the topics to — under the media talking points for those folks — to approach us and ‘properly frame the message’: 211 will be discontinued for Sarasota County residents because of the Sarasota County Commissioner’s funding cut, not because of any decision by United Way Suncoast or your organization. Was that out of your office?

BB: It’s not a media release. We sent out talking points to help folks understand the narrative around 211 and the importance of 211 in our community. We also sent that to our county commissioners. So everybody received that. 

MM: Well, I didn’t receive it from my county commission, but it says, literally, media talking points. So it wasn’t for the media. 

BB: It could be. 

MM: Okay. Got it.

JW: Then, Commissioner Neil Rainford joined the fray, by lobbing a culture-war grenade. He rhetorically asked how they could call 211 a “lifeline” if they make referrals to Planned Parenthood.

Neil Rainford: I had a concern that I just wanted to answer that might not be able to be discussed at a … later in this meeting. I had a constituent that asked me about some of the different organizations that 211 is involved with in terms of the referrals, recommendations — does 211 refer to Planned Parenthood?

BB: Yes. 

NR: Okay. I just found that interesting. We started off the conversation saying to give a lifeline. So thank you for that.

JW: But two hours later, when Smith’s agenda item came up, there was no more talk about public-private partnerships vs. charity. The discussion turned into an entirely different direction when Smith said he received an email this weekend from Hugh Culverhouse, one of the biggest developers in the region.

Mark Smith: On Saturday, March 16, I received an email that states, “Mark, I will pay the $109,000 for 211 program this year and next year if the county does not want to fund it. Obviously, four commissioners felt there was a valid reason not to fund the program. I believe in the program, but respect the commission. Please announce at the next board meeting: I will pay the $109,000. Then you can move on to other business. Sincerely, Hugh Culverhouse.” So with that said I would like to ask that the board direct the county administrator to contact Hugh Culverhouse and figure out how he could contribute.

JW: Moran said he was concerned about Sarasota County becoming a middleman. After clarifying that he would like the county administrator to convince Culverhouse to donate directly to United Way, Smith’s motion passed 4–1. Rainford objected, saying he was still worried about the county indirectly helping Planned Parenthood, by way of United Way.

Another motion, requested by Moran, passed unanimously, adding an agenda item to put United Way on the hot seat at the next county commission meeting.

MM: What I want the public to know is that we received, from the United Way Suncoast, saying that if we do not pay $109,381, the 211 will be turned off on 4-1. Just the tone and tenor of it, I don’t like. But it’s even deeper than that, this is coming from an organization. When you’re looking at the most recently filed tax return, they have $45 million in cash and securities. I would argue this clearly has nothing to do with $109,000. And why are they asking the Sarasota County taxpayers to carry this cost? I think it’s a fair question. 

JW: Commissioner Joe Neunder ended the discussion by lecturing Beightol, and non-profits in general, about how misguided they are by relying on government funding.

Joe Neunder: So I’m just going to take the opportunity to say it again for anybody that’s out there listening, or you know, whomever: don’t plan on your budget on recurring taxpayer county dollars. It’s bad business. Period.

JW: Beightol later expanded in an interview with WSLR News on why she thinks public-private partnerships are important to providing social services.

BB: So from a public perspective, you have tax revenue, you have money that’s coming in that’s fairly predictable, that’s coming in on a regular basis. From a non-profit standpoint, we raise money for that budget every single year. It’s always a new year, it’s always, you know, ‘What is the amount of money that will come in this year that we can spend?’ So when I talk about extending the life of any particular social service or any partnership that we may have, that flexibility works in tandem.

JW: On his way out of the commission chambers, Commissioner Neunder stopped in the lobby to listen to what Beightol had to say. When the reporter tried to ask Neunder questions about his views of the government’s role in funding for social services, he turned around and headed to the exit. He responded, in Spanish, that he had no time.

This is Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.

 

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