Amid ongoing crises in housing and childcare, thousands of local children, working families, and residents facing homelessness will be hurt by major cuts to social service programs approved by the Sarasota County Commission, several nonprofits say.
Ahead of a new budget year starting Oct. 1, the commission voted last week to ignore the recommendations of its own advisory councils and remove funding for more than two dozen different programs. That included more than a million dollars for a number of long-standing services.
Among those taking the biggest hits were the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties; Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness; and the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, or ELC. The programs for all three organizations were also among the most highly rated by the county's advisory council, using standards determined by the commission.
The commission also approved more than a million dollars in "performance bonuses" for over two dozen programs, many of which received lower ratings from advisory councils than programs that were not funded at all.
"It really was shocking," said Brigid Kolowith, chief operating officer of the ELC. "More than shocking, it's very sad."
At least 250 children will be impacted by the commission's decision to cut $510,000 in funding to the ELC's School Readiness program, which provides financial support to low-income and working-class households for early childhood education and care. The county had provided funding for the program for over 20 years, according to the ELC.
And because that funding was matched dollar for dollar by a state grant, it means more than $1 million in assistance for quality childcare in the county is now gone.
Working families and their kids will absorb the full impact, Kolowith added. Every penny went to them, as not a dime was used for her agency's operational expenses.
They include parents who are hospital workers, teachers and other county employees, she noted – with income ranges for a household of four between $45,000 and $60,000 a year.
"This is devastating for them," Kolowith said.
In addition to the decision's financial blow to parents, the loss of access to affordable, high-quality early education hurts children, she added, coming at a time of crucial brain development before age 5.
"If we want to invest in our communities and families, we need to invest in our little ones," she said.
After-school and summer programs
Older children and their families will be impacted by the cuts as well.
The commission also voted to go against its advisory group's recommendation to increase funding for the Boys & Girls Club from $475,000 to almost $522,000 this budget year. Instead of an increase, the commission opted to slash the funding to $0.
The monies had supported the nonprofit's highly-ranked after-school and summer youth education and teen programs that serve 3,000 children, most from low-income families, according to Bill Sadlo, president and CEO.
"These are essential services, and the children and families of this community cannot go without them," he said.
"For elementary-aged youth, our model ensures a safe place to come after school and in the summers with programs focused on literacy, health and wellness," Sadlo added. "Our award-winning teen programs focus on leadership training, workforce development, and college and career preparation."
While the nonprofit remains committed to its mission of providing safe and productive programs, Sadlo said, he hoped the county would rethink its decision at its final budget meeting next week.
"The lack of reimbursement for these critical services is an unfortunate outcome. One that we hope will be reconsidered," Sadlo said.
Millions of dollars of federal grants at risk
Aside from education and childcare, the commission also defunded a system supporting homelessness services.
Instead of receiving a slight increase this year to $225,000, as recommended by the advisory council for a key system that coordinates homeless services across the county, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness will get $0 for it.
A nearly 18% cut from its overall budget, the loss of those funds guts Suncoast's community services information system, said Kevin Stiff, Suncoast's interim CEO.
The system is a crucial database used by a vast network of case managers in Sarasota and Manatee counties' continuum of care, which Suncoast leads. It tracks services and information on thousands of residents who are homeless or close to becoming homeless.
"The system is critical to our community response as it relates to reducing homelessness," Stiff said.
What's more, the system meets a data-collection requirement set by HUD in order for the area's continuum of care to qualify for millions of dollars in grants.
Now those funds are also at risk of disappearing.
"It's going to affect the most needy," Stiff said of the county's decision to defund the information system on homelessness services.
As at the other agencies, Stiff said he was hopeful that commissioners will reconsider their decision at next week's meeting.
He plans to be there, as does Kolowith from the ELC.
"We never lose hope," Kolowith said. "We never stop advocating for the children and the community."
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at email@example.com .
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Sept. 22, 2023. See the story as it originally appeared here.