Sarasota County commissioners want to explore creating a taxing district to support mental health services, though they have questions about how the funding mechanism would work in practice.
At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Commissioner Mike Moran led a discussion regarding a mental health care special district, which would allow officials to set a dedicated property tax for the purpose of raising funds for mental health services. Voters would have to authorize it in a referendum.
Moran said local mental health organizations have expressed a belief their missions would be enhanced with reliable funding.
“They could have the best plan in the world, but they don’t have the money to execute,” Moran said. “With this, you’ve taken a huge variable away.”
Moran laid out options for how the county could establish a funding source, including a dependent special district, which the county has the authority to create, and an independent special district, which the municipalities within Sarasota County would need to opt into. The county could also raise its own millage rate.
Whether dependent or independent, the special district would have its own governing board. The county would control the makeup of a dependent special district. The governor would appoint two members to the board of an independent special district; the county would have the authority to appoint at least three members.
Commissioner Charles Hines expressed excitement about the concept and cited the county’s collaboration with First Step of Sarasota on a community treatment center as a program that could benefit from more funding. Hines said dealing with mental health and addiction is putting a strain on the county jail, and he believes providing alternative services would be more effective while reducing a burden on other portions of the county’s budget.
“What I would hate to see is future boards dealing with budgets and having to fund that either under the sheriff’s budget or different line items in the general fund,” Hines said.
Commissioner Nancy Detert acknowledged the need for better mental health services but wanted to know more about how the county’s funding would be used.
“I don’t want to get to where [service providers] are going to cost-shift everything onto us, and we’re supplanting money instead of enhancing money,” Detert said.
The commission directed staff to develop more information on the process of establishing a mental health care district for future discussion.