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Sarasota County commission leaves families stranded

Written by on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Overhaul of social services funding has major programs unfunded.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Sept. 22, 2023

Host: Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran is on a crusade. Since his wife’s non-profit was cut off from county funding by a professional advisory board last year, he has remade the entire system. The Moran system is now in place, and last week, he and the other four county commissioners approved a Behavioral Health and Health and Human Services budget for next year that took many mainstay organizations by surprise. Some of them will get zero dollars in 2024, and that could mean – among others – that a couple hundred families in Sarasota will have to go without decent daycare for their children. Our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: ALSO Youth is out. The Sarasota County Commission denied any taxpayer funding for next year to the organization that helps young LGBTQ Sarasotans. That’s not surprising, given the culture-war climate increasingly emanating from the commission.


A little eyebrow-raising: Teen Court is back in. That’s the organization Commissioner Mike Moran’s wife works for. The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners approved the non-profit for $232,900 of funding from the county’s behavioral health pot in 2024 – that’s $33,000 more than an advisory board recommended.

But here’s what really stirred up the pot: Mainstays of social service in Sarasota County have been completely cut out. Non-profits such as the Boys and Girls Club, the Early Learning Coalition, the Safe Children Coalition, and the Women’s Resource Center, The School Readiness Coalition, and the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness will receive no county funding at all next year, or substantially less funding than they requested, and that opens a particularly painful gap in children and youth services that may leave a couple hundred working families in Sarasota scrambling for childcare. Ashley Brown with the Womens’ Resource Center – a partner in the Early Learning Coalition – explains.

Ashley Brown: So one of the barriers for working families is the cost of childcare. It’s a huge expense, and the childcare subsidy that organizations like the Early Learning Coalition provide make it possible for working families. That’s sometimes their only option for childcare that they can afford. And that enables them to work and to know that they have their kids in safe, quality childcare. The funding cut that was done in the vote last week is going to impact probably 200-250 families that are no longer going to have childcare. It’s not just the childcare issue. What are these families going to do? What are they going to do about going to work? So it affects the employers. The majority of caregiving is up to the women. So for our clients, access to childcare is a huge barrier. This is just causing another barrier to go up, in terms of going to work, or going to school.

J.W.: It was an advisory board’s decision last year to not recommend Teen Court for funding by Sarasota County that prompted Moran into a crusade. With little input or pushback from his fellow commissioners, he proceeded to remake the entire system and process that funnels tax dollars to social service and mental health non-profits. First, he changed the composition of the two advisory boards making the funding recommendations. BHAC and HSAC, as the boards are tagged, were remade earlier this year, and there are now fewer healthcare professionals suggesting where taxpayer dollars should go. Then, he proceeded to change the categories the county uses to identify needs. Finally, he introduced a bonus system to reward the best competitors.

Mike Moran: We had such, in my opinion, strangulating criteria on how the funds are disbursed. With quartile measuring. You weren’t allowed to have more than a certain percentage of funding than you had the year before. It was just, in my opinion, choking. The applicants related to this. We got so far from shore that when you asked the non-profit the simple question ‘What do you need? What do you need to carry out your mission?’… That answer was very different in this funding cycle, which is great versus in past funding cycles. It wasn’t even close to what they really needed to perform and carry out their mission. With that said, if it’s worth funding, fund it hard. Don’t kind of fund it. Don’t limp in. If you are believing in the concept of putting in taxpayer dollars to get a rational return on your money, fund it hard. And again, what we were doing for years is spreading the peanut butter, in my opinion. Somebody needed 100 grand, and you’re giving them 10. What are you really doing? … I just think, the top performers, we should fund them hard. And people that aren’t performing well, they should be in jeopardy of no funding.

J.W.: The Moran system triggered a harsh response from Jon Thaxton, a Republican and former county commissioner. In an email to all five commissioners, he said that “the new system replaced a highly functional one that took decades and generations of commissioners to create. While there was, as there always will be, room for improvement, it was a model program founded on national best practices.”

Now, the Moran system is in place. But instead of going with the new boards’ recommendations, the County Commissioners voted last week on a different list of funding proposals, blindsiding most everyone else in the room.

Jennifer Johnston, director of community leadership at the Gulfcoast Community Foundation, described it this way:

Jennifer Johnston: So when I watched the county commission meeting on September 12, I had in front of me the list of recommendations from the Human Services Advisory Council and the Behavioral Health Advisory Council, as they had been submitted into the packet for the meeting. During the meeting, another list of recommended agencies and amounts was being discussed by the commissioners, but that was not made available to the public. So I was watching online and nothing was displayed. And I asked folks who were there watching, if they had any information. But they did not. So after the vote was taken, on which agencies would receive county funding and how much funding, then a new list was shared with the public, and that list did not match the recommendations of the advisory council. We were not aware that there was going to be a different list that would be voted on by the Commission. Some of those representatives were not available to attend the meeting, and they were surprised to hear after the meeting, that though they had scored highly in the process of the advisory councils, that though they met the criteria outlined by the county commission, they were not going to receive funding. Meanwhile, some that scored lower than them were going to receive funding, despite the recommendations of the council.

J.W.: Meanwhile, homeless youth in the South County will get less support in their transition to college. The Schoolhouse Link program of the Safe Children Coalition received zero funding, despite a recommendation from the advisory board. Ellen McLaughlin, director of the program, describes the impact.

Ellen McLaughlin: This cut is about a quarter of our program’s budget. It is money that is serving families in South Sarasota County, by providing them with a case manager and young adults with services, to help them continue their education and become stable. The program is important because it helps them stay in school or go to college, and it helps them maintain stable housing.

Moran did not respond to a request for an interview.

This has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.

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