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The social service brouhaha

Should county tax dollars be used to fund social service organizations? Where do you draw the line?

  • Sarasota
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With no disrespect intended, watching this process, well, it’s almost enough to make you want to seek mental health counseling.

This is the long saga of the Sarasota County Commission — or should we say of Commissioner Mike Moran — trying to figure out what the role should be for the County Commission and county taxpayers in the complicated, growing world of providing and funding social services to the county’s needy residents.

Commissioners went at it again for two and a half hours Tuesday, 90 minutes of which they spent listening mostly to representatives of social service, not-for-profit organizations plead passionately to commissioners to reverse many of Commissioner Moran’s surprising cuts that the commission adopted Sept. 12.

Moran triggered a chain reaction of IEDs among the county’s social service organizations two weeks ago when, without warning to anyone, he showed up at the commission meeting with a spreadsheet of how much county taxpayer money he wanted to allocate to roughly 50 organizations. 

Whoosh. Bam, slam. It was Moran’s classic bullying, passive-aggressive style. He prefaced his proposals with accolades for all of the hundreds of hours the 12 members of the Behavioral Health Advisory Council and the Health Services Advisory Council devoted to analyzing, evaluating, auditing, scoring and ultimately recommending funding amounts.

But then rather having commissioners discuss the councils’ recommendations, Moran pushed forward his scoring and final funding recommendations, and before almost anyone could blink or say much, the commission voted unanimously to adopt Moran’s funding recommendations.

It depends on how you look at it. As he tells it, his funding proposals approved 68% of the 90 applications, with 25 of those approved receiving more money than the advisory councils’ recommended. But the flip side of that is Moran initially proposed no funding for 15 applications — for organizations to which the county previously has contributed consistently.

Virtually no one was present to raise a hand. Thankfully, Commission Chair Ron Cutsinger did. You could tell after the vote, he felt overly queasy about what just happened and eventually indicated he thought the commission should revisit the matter.

Meantime, it took no time for the news to spread in not-for-profit circles. The leaders and board members of the affected organizations were agog. They couldn’t believe how neither Moran nor the commission gave any of them advance warning of Moran’s changes; couldn’t believe how Moran’s scoring and recommendations appeared cavalierly tossing aside the advisory councils’ recommendations, with nary a question to the councils’ members and making it seem much of what they had done was all for naught; and they couldn’t believe funding was eliminated altogether for some organizations.

In the two weeks hence, Moran and commissioners felt the aftershocks, so much so that Moran felt compelled at the start of Tuesday’s commission meeting to explain how he arrived at his proposals.  

“I didn’t touch the numbers,” he said. “I never touched any calculation” that the advisory councils made. He did, however, create a scoring spreadsheet and a bonus system of his own that resulted in different funding levels.

Cutsinger apparently felt so uncomfortable about what occurred at Tuesday’s meeting he put the matter on Tuesday’s agenda for revisions and discussion and also sequestered himself the past few days to review every nonprofit’s application and the advisory councils’ scoring for every application.

His results explain a lot. They give context to what has transpired over the past two weeks.

“This is the first year for an entirely new process,” Cutsinger told the audience at Tuesday’s meeting. “And then we had the added challenge of significant time constraints. I’ve always understood we might not get it right the first time around.”

And he was right. “What quickly became apparent, there were flaws in the process that led to significantly inaccurate scores.”

Hindsight is wonderful, of course. With the deadline for the adoption of next year’s budget looming, the commission was running out of time for what could have, perhaps should have, occurred: A public discussion with the advisory councils and the commission to raise questions, reach consensus, make revisions and avoid the consternation and controversy that occurred.

By addressing the matter Tuesday, Cutsinger made it right, at least better. Commissioners added back the councils’ recommended funding for six organizations.

But there is more context to this that is worth noting. And here we will give Moran credit. 

While his bullying on the dais is off-putting, Moran takes seriously the role of being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. For four years, he has questioned the commission’s allocation of taxpayer money for social services. He vehemently opposes the commission awarding tax dollars to organizations that provide pre-pre-school learning services and, to an extent, day care. Funding for early learning, he says, should come from the Sarasota County School Board.

On a broader scale, without being totally blunt and explicit, Moran rightly has been raising the question of how far or deeply county taxpayers should fund the not-for-profit organizations that do the hard, necessary work of providing social services to the needy.

It’s a great question. You can add this one, too: Whether county taxpayers should fund social services. 

In next year’s budget the commission is allocating more than $12 million for human services. The advisory councils recommended $13 million. If you asked each of the nonprofits what they really need, it would easily double, probably triple the amount. 

There is never enough money. What’s more, as this current debate has demonstrated, even when there is a quantitative scoring system, there is an arbitrariness to who gets what. If you listened to the organizations’ representatives at Tuesday’s meeting, they all do great, needed work. So what makes the five county commissioners qualified to sit in judgment on whom to fund or not fund? Some they like, some they don’t.

Indeed, while observing what transpired over the past two weeks, what we often says also  became clear: In spite of everyone’s good, honorable intentions, when government intervenes, things get messy, complicated, controversial — and most of the time worse.  

One of the answers to this question of taxpayers’ role in social services came when Commissioner Moran asked  longtime Sarasota homebuilder and philanthropist Lee Wetherington: “Where do the government dollars in this stop?”

Moran said: “When I started this four years ago for the community to have this discussion, I respectfully disagree that the government is the answer.” 

Wetherington, a foundational rock of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota for 32 years, said, “There is so much money out there that comes in besides taxes. If the government and foundation boards got together to really create a dynamic, it would be much better than we have right here.”



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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