BEHAVIORAL AND HUMAN SERVICES FUNDING: A FIASCO
Finally, rationality prevailed at the Sarasota County Commission meeting on September 26, where the Commissioners reconsidered the travesty of the previous week when they had slashed funding for a myriad of important services to Sarasota citizens. Rep. Fiona McFarland and Early Learning Center’s CEO Janet Kahn gave impassioned comments on why funding for the ELC was essential, not only so that parents could go to work, but so that their preschoolers could be exposed to a positive early learning experience. Cutting over a half million in funding would have meant a loss of matching funds from federal and state sources. A similar loss of funding would have resulted from the proposed cut to the Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinates homeless services throughout the county. Other cuts were made to Child Protective Services, programs for disabled children, for school dropouts, for after-school programs, for at-risk children and youth and several mental health and substance abuse programs. .
The Commission should return to the larger council, with expanded scoring, and at the bare minimum stick by its guidelines, and follow the recommendations of the Councils put in place to evaluate these organizations.
For six years I was a member of the 19-member Human Services Advisory Council (which until recently also reviewed behavioral health programs.) Each of us carefully analyzed and scored all funding proposal applications using a comprehensive set of areas for scoring, rather than only three currently used. Then two of us would visit four or five agencies each to see the programs firsthand and talk with their staff. This provided a full picture and with 19 of us, the results were more valid.
Contrary to Commissioner Mike Moran’s description of the prior members as “power brokers” and “insiders,” we were a diverse group of at-large members, human service professional, representatives of both the School Board and Sheriff’s office and a representative from both north and south county foundations. We made our decisions based not on political or personal agendas, but what, after careful and considerable review came to the conclusions that these were the best programs for those in need. Now there is both a Behavioral Health and Human Services Council, the latter with only five members. Instead of a comprehensive list of areas for rating the agencies, there are now only three priorities. This seems superficial and less likely to produce a valid picture of the quality of services.
Having moved here several years ago from Suffolk County, NY where I was Commissioner of Social Services, I was impressed with the professionalism of the staff and the conscientiousness and lack of politics in funding programs in Sarasota. My experience as an advisory council member made me appreciate the tremendous job most of these county-funded agencies are doing, with never enough funding. In fact, for as long as I can remember County funding has remained flat, despite the huge increases both in county population and the more extreme problems of drug addiction, mental illness, teen suicide and more.
Fortunately, in their second meeting the Commissioners had a change of heart, and after a huge outcry from the public, restored funding for most of these programs. Commissioner Mike Moran said the past councils operated in the dark, which is incorrect, as our meetings where decisions were made were always open to the public. But there was no sunshine and complete confusion in the process this year. This process completely lacked transparency. And millions of dollars in funding were put at risk.
What will happen next year? What is more important than a government caring for those in greatest need? For years the County Commissioners took seriously and respected the work of the advisory councils they had appointed. Let us hope, not hope but insist, that in the future the Commissioners follow the advice given—and perhaps even visit the programs themselves.
Ruth A Brandwein, Ph.D.
Health Care Action Team Chair, Sarasota League of Women Voters
Former Commissioner of Social Services, Suffolk County, NY