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Sarasota Wednesday, May 12, 2021 1 year ago

Planning for mental health district moves ahead

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County Commissioners are considering a dependent district, which would remain under their governance.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

County commissioners are taking a step toward solidifying a taxing district to generate dedicated funding for mental health services.

With a 4-1 vote last week, commissioners authorized a June public hearing on an ordinance to create the district. If approved, the district would be funded by general ad valorem tax revenue.

Commissioner Mike Moran first proposed a special taxing district in early 2020, but a ballot initiative planned for the November 2020 election was pulled over uncertainties connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now commissioners are considering a dependent special district, which does not require a referendum. Under the plan, the County Commission could serve as the governing body over the  spending or appoint a group to oversee the work.

If commissioners in the future wanted to establish an independent district that could set its own millage rate, it would have to hold a referendum. 

As considerations for how the district would function continue, Moran suggested experts create a temporary task force to assess gaps in mental health services.

“These subject matter experts will have knowledge well beyond our expertise and can guide us on some of the gaps and overlaps in coverage,” Moran said. 

Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested the county health officer and administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, Chuck Henry, lead the task force.

Detert also suggested the county ask its lobbyists to propose members for the task force to ensure some members were “plugged in” to allocations of state mental health funding.

Commissioners hoped a potential task force could have a report ready in time for the board’s June budget workshops, but  County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said it is too quick a turnaround. Lewis said a task force could be in place by January to coincide with revenue’s arrival.

Although most board members were in favor of the move, Commissioner Christian Ziegler voted against it. In past discussions Ziegler voiced concern about the impact a millage rate increase would have on residents. 

He said residents may experience “tax fatigue” if the county were to add another increase in taxes. County residents already experience an increased rate to pay for the $65 million bond referendum voters approved for the Legacy Trail extension project. 

Commissioners have not yet come to a conclusion for the best funding strategy for the district. They will continue to discuss options during budget workshops throughout the summer. 

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