Amid COVID-19 concerns, commissioners said it "wasn't the right time" for the referendum.
In 2019, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran brought forth an idea to address the county’s lack of mental health care funding, proposing a special taxing district.
In January, commissioners unanimously voted to pursue a voter referendum on the proposed property tax to fund it.
But now, commissioners have backed away from the referendum for this year, citing COVID-19 effects on the economy.
“In good faith, it is difficult to ask the taxpayers of Sarasota County to vote on this issue when we really don’t know the full impact of this financial crisis that’s coming about, given COVID-19,” Moran said.
As shutdowns related to COVID-19 affect the local economy, commissioners were concerned about budget cuts. Several stated that many existing programs would have to face cutbacks so it wouldn’t be the right time to add another program.
“You’d be asking existing programs to take a hit while instituting new programs and I don’t think that’s a great position to be in,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “If we delay it a year, I think people would understand.”
Commissioners also expressed concerns about raising residents’ property taxes when many are already facing wage cuts and job losses.
If the referendum were approved, the commission would have set a property tax rate annually. The county would then have controlled distribution of the collections to local service providers.
“It’s a really testy time to raise people’s property taxes, especially in a time when we have budget cuts,” Detert said.
Commissioners all expressed their favor for the referendum and discussed the possibility of bringing it up again on the next ballot.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler said it would be unfortunate to push ahead with the referendum and have the voters reject it in the fall.
Commissioner Charles Hines stated he would like to hear a lot of public opinion about the district before he voted to put in on the November ballot. Additionally, he said many workshops to educate the public on the district would need to be held, neither of which is possible under current conditions.
“Timing is everything,” Moran said. “And the timing on this couldn’t be any worse.”