SARASOTA — After months of discussing and getting nowhere on how and what Sarasota County funds in human services, commissioners sat down last week in a workshop to take a deep dive into the subject.
The result was direction to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Health and Human Services Director Chuck Henry to simplify the process.
As commissioners got into their discussions, two things became quickly clear: the department’s organization is confusing, and the funding structure used by the county is complex.
Henry himself, as confirmed by Commissioner Mike Moran who drove most of Wednesday’s discussion, is a state employee — although he has a reporting relationship to Lewis regarding human services.
That role implemented by former director Bill Little over 11 years ago is unique among Florida’s 67 counties.
As a slide in Lewis’ PowerPoint presentation pointed out, the combined department delivers both Florida Department of Health Service and “county-funded human services.”
A majority of Henry’s 265-person department are state employees too. Only 41 people in the department are county employees. In many instances, there’s a blending of roles.
“We don’t even know if they’re employees of the state or employees of the county,” Moran complained.
“It’s a collaborative group,” Henry responded.
Funding human service needs in the county is divided into core services and non-core services with a bewildering complex of acronyms involved with perhaps overlapping responsibilities: HSAC (Human Services Advisory Committee), BHAC (Behavioral Health Advisory Council), MHSD (Mental Health Special District.
Services are provided by what the county calls contracted human services with a variety of agencies competing for limited dollars through an application process that can leave stakeholders scratching their heads.
As one unknown stakeholder wrote in a handout Moran provided to commissioners, it’s easier “to get a root canal than complete an application.”
Those applications go to the advisory committee whose volunteers appointed by commissioners spend hundreds of hours visiting the agencies, asking questions, and scoring the documents. They then make their recommendations known to commissioners.
That process blew up last November when the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee was making its presentation and recommendations for funding.
Halfway through that presentation, Moran and former Commissioner Christian Ziegler, interrupted with objections about the selection process the council members used.
As the discussion continued to disintegrate, commissioners decided to take no action on the recommendations but instead to continue the existing contracts to the end of January.
They also agreed to release about one-third of the available funds so the agencies could continue to operate and wait until the two newly elected commissioners were on board so they could conduct a deeper dive into the issues.
“It’s a very complex process,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said near the end of the workshop. “It’s the scope and size of this that’s so diverse.”
Cutsinger added that he was in favor of simplifying the process as suggested by Moran.
With six months remaining in the current fiscal year, commissioners agreed to extend the existing contracts to Sept. 30 while further changes are implemented.
Moran’s fellow commissioners appeared amenable to funding services under three broad umbrellas:
• Food, shelter and safety.
• Mental health and substance abuse.
• Jail diversion.
They agreed that a simplified, perhaps one-page, application be developed, and directed that Lewis and Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham assume responsibility for the program, not the state employees.
They also asked Lewis to schedule a second workshop to consider where they were at in making changes.
“Things should evolve and change over time,” Lewis said, wrapping up the discussion, but leaving commissioners with one thought.
“We’ll deal with the process, we’ll get there, but we need to identify the problem we’re trying to address.”
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